Thursday, March 6, 2008

Putting Poetic Wisdom into Practice

It was a real comfort to read Marshall Grossman's effort to apply poetic wisdom to the current turmoil in the Democratic party in his blog post last night on The Huffington Post, even if his poet was William Dunbar, who preceded the concept of poetic wisdom in Giambattista Vico's New Science by over two centuries. He is not the first to do this, since I have already commented on a similar approach by Jeff Chown, president of Davie Brown Talent; but Grossman has better academic credentials and employs them to excellent effect. (I find it hard to imagine Chown spending much time reading anything from the nineteenth century, let alone any earlier sources!) However, while Chown applied his poetic wisdom to his area of expertise, which is consumer appeal, Grossman finds his model in Aesop's "Boastful Athlete" fable, whose moral, as stated on the Aesopica Web site is "that talking is a waste of time when you can simply provide a demonstration." This leads Grossman to the conclusion I have been flogging for several months, most recently in the context of last Tuesday's primary madness.

In a further display of his literary expertise, Grossman draws his conclusion in the form of a "modest proposal" (that wonderful Swiftian turn of phrase, which I have also appropriated in another context) in the following words:

All three prospective presidents happen to be United States Senators. Let's judge them on what they do, on what they can deliver, between now and the election. Let Clinton and Obama vow not to leave Washington, DC between now and the nominating convention. Don't tell me who will deliver a progressive America. Take your campaign to the floor of the Senate and start delivering. Get in there and make it happen, stop the FISA act, assert congressional oversight of war funding. Stand in the well of the Senate and demand that the legislative branch check and balance the run away executive. Tell Nancy Pelosi to enforce the contempt citations against Meirs and Bolton. Haul Mukasey before the Senate and read him the riot act on ignoring congressional subpoenas. Tie up the DOJ's funding until you get some respect. There is enough work to be done here in Washington for you to make a real record of achievement -- and instead of destroying each other you'll put McCain under enormous pressure to come back and meet you in the Senate, where saying, at least potentially is doing. And the TV coverage will be free too. How's that for campaign finance reform?

In other words stop wasting all that money (not to mention time) playing media games on the campaign trail. Instead, get back to "doing the people's business" by taking your "day job" seriously; and let the people exercise their judgment on the basis of how well you do that job. We know that at least one Senator (Harry Reid) would appreciate that strategy from the two Democratic contenders; and, as Grossman observed, if both Clinton and Obama were to take this strategy seriously, they would be putting considerable pressure on McCain to play the same game.

There is, however, one element of my own approach that Grossman seems to have missed, which is that victories on the Senate floor tend to be won on the basis of forming coalitions. The Senate is thus one of the few places in our governmental structure that can get beyond that "top-dog thinking" that has resulted in such an agonizing primary season and probably driven much of the electorate up the wall. Following Grossman's advice would get both Clinton and Obama back into the groove of coalition-building, hopefully to an extent to which they would appreciate the value of the process. They could then take that sense of value with them to the Democratic National Convention and recognize that a properly-constituted coalition is likely to be the "secret sauce" that will make all the difference in Chown's consumer model, not just in the White House but also in both houses of the Congress. However, this is getting ahead of the game. In the short term Clinton and Obama need to take Grossman's "modest proposal" seriously and start providing the electorate with their political actions as an alternative to their "campaigning words." Properly executed, those actions will speak in a far more compelling voice, even to the point of abating our fears of what Grossman called "a Badly Wrecked Train."

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