Updated: June 25, 2013 6:23AM
Memorial Day is the national day of remembrance for the men and women of the armed forces who died protecting our way of life. The American success story they defended with the ultimate sacrifice is rooted in our governing principles articulated in the Constitution. But increasingly these days we hear doubts expressed about our system of government and its ability to confront the problems of our era.
The litany of complaints is familiar: Gridlock in Washington. Fevered partisanship. Nothing gets done. Filibusters in the Senate by Republicans hold up approval of presidential appointments and judicial nominations. Money has too much influence in politics and government. Congress gets poor marks in all the polls.
“It’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy,” Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne opined the other day. Things are said to be so bad that the online magazine Salon last year proposed “Six fixes for American democracy.” An outfit named “Fix the Senate Now” regularly contributes to my email in-box with appeals to “reform” the Senate filibuster rules.
This is mostly poppycock from liberals dismayed that their left-wing agenda can’t get through Congress. But conservatives who should know better sometimes join in the lament, saying foolish things like “Congress shouldn’t get paid until they do something!”
The authors of the Constitution were acutely aware of the fallibility of human beings and the dangers of concentrated power. They constructed an elaborate framework of checks and balances among the branches of government and two houses of Congress. The goal was to prevent any temporary majority from riding roughshod over the minority and to provide a counterbalance to those in power. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” was the way James Madison, a principal framer of the Constitution, put it.
We see the wisdom of that today as congressional oversight will insure a full investigation of the Internal Revenue Service’s abuse of conservative Americans and groups, and of the Obama administration’s spying on journalists.
Do checks and balances make it harder to pass legislation? Of course. The House and Senate must agree, and a president can always veto a bill. The Constitution itself was a work of compromise between those desiring a strong central government and those fearful of it. The resulting governmental template requires all significant sides to be satisfied to pass legislation. In other words, compromise.
That’s not easy with a country as strongly and closely divided as ours. President Barack Obama won 51 percent of the 2012 vote and Republican Mitt Romney 47 percent. Democrats run the Senate, the GOP the House.
Only one leader is uniquely situated to be the prime agent of compromise: the president, who is answerable to all voters. It ranks as a major failure of Obama’s presidency that he has often resorted to attacking Republicans — as in the other day accusing them of cowering to Rush Limbaugh — rather than inspiring the confidence that can lead to compromise.
There is nothing wrong with our democratic republic’s covenant and its principles. We live in a conflicted age when leaders on both sides would rather shout at each other than work together. But that is only a reflection of the times and the divided views of we the people. Our politics may not always be pretty, but the principles that make them possible have inspired men and women to sacrifice all for our way of life. Good to remember this Memorial Day — or on any day.