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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Culture of NO…

There is a time tested theory in American politics which holds that the sunny optimist, the glass half full candidate almost always wins the race. Think Reagan and Roosevelt, Clinton and George W. Sunny and outgoing beats sober and reserved with Nixon being the modern exception that proves the old rule.

Americans like to tell themselves with persistent regularity that we are “a can do” country. If the job needs doing – sign us up. We’ll find a way, against all odds if necessary, to get to YES. In January the Gallup polling organization reported that fully 69% of American adults were optimistic about how they and their family will do this year. Democrats – a whopping 83% – and younger people by almost the same number were even more optimistic than the population as a whole.

The Gallup survey indicated that we are optimistic even as we believe 2013 will be a “difficult” year.

So with all this optimism and can-do spirit, with all this professed desire to get to YES, why does it so often seem that our politics have been hijacked by the naysayers? Let’s call them the NO Caucus and admit that they have elbowed out the optimists. Where are the Reagans and Humphreys? What has happened to the politician that starts with YES and finds a way to move forward?

I think our political culture of NO is really about avoiding risk.

The United States has certainly produced its share of YES men – Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in the modern economy and Henry Ford and Howard Hughes in an earlier time – but business risk takers, people willing to say YES to an innovative idea or a spiffy new product, aren’t the same breed of cat as public policy or political risk takers. It is becoming increasingly rare to see any person in public life – right, left or middle – willing to make the effort to back away from NO and embrace YES.

The kabuki dance in Washington, D.C. that substitutes for a confirmation process is one place were NO has become the norm. Both parties do it – stall, filibuster, play games with appointees from the federal courts to the Pentagon. For the first time in our history a Secretary of Defense nominee was subjected to a filibuster, but a host of other offices go unfilled as the culture of NO and the need to make every appointment “bullet proof” creeps into every decision.

Forbes reported a while back that “the Senate waited 487 days after Richard Taranto’s nomination before confirming him on March 11 as an appellate judge, though his 91-0 vote signaled no opposition. [President] Obama’s previous nominee for that post, lawyer Edward Dumont, withdrew his name from consideration after waiting more than 18 months.”

Forbes went on to note that “no nominee has been confirmed since 2006 for the D.C. Circuit, a feeder for the Supreme Court; four of the top court’s nine current justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, previously sat on the D.C. Circuit.” With appointments to the federal courts NO has become the default position.

Opposition has already formed to Obama’s recent pick to oversee the federal housing agencies. Idaho’s Mike Crapo says he’s “very concerned” about the nominees, which is D.C.-speak for “we may filibuster.” The filibuster is, of course, the ultimate way to say NO in the United States Senate. The filibuster says “I’m not just opposed, but I am so opposed we shouldn’t even talk about it.”

The senators from South Carolina, including a senator not elected but appointed to the office he holds, are holding up the appointment of the eminently well qualified MIT scientist the president has selected to lead the often unmanageable U.S. Department of Energy. Lindsay Graham, one of those South Carolina senators, seems these days to occupy a permanent seat – the NO seat – for the Sunday morning talk shows. Clearly Graham has concluded that his path to re-election in South Carolina (he may face a challenge from a place even further to the right of his very right-leaning politics) is to say NO over and over again.

Graham doesn’t like the FBI’s intelligence work before the Boston Marathon bombing, thinks the Benghazi consulate attack was the worse foreign policy blunder since Chamberlain came back from Munich and, well, don’t get him started on Syria. Graham is the current political personification of what the great Calvin Trillin calls “the Sabbath Gasbags,” the dependable and predictable talking heads who will always be against everything before you’ve had brunch on Sunday. Every talk show needs a NO sayer  and the NO caucus has them in ready and abundant supply.

Sen. Pat Toomey, the Republican senator who proposed universal background check for gun purchases, committed the ultimate Washington, D.C. gaff recently when he spoke the truth about the NO votes in the Senate on that issue. “There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it,” Toomey said. In other words, NO was the default position for Senate Republicans on background checks and that position had little to do with the merits of the issue. It was just a reflex NO since NO is safer on gun issues – no NRA mailings in your state – than YES any day.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma has made a career of saying NO to climate change. Against all the evidence, Inhofe has been the political system’s leading climate change denier. He recently went head-to-head with the four star admiral in change of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Samuel Locklear, on that subject – and lost the debate, but still put him down as a NO. The Senator tried to get the Admiral to say he’d been misquoted on climate change when he called it a major national security issue, but as Bloomberg News reported the decorated and highly educated Naval officer responded that “About 280,000 people died in natural disasters in his Pacific area of responsibility from 2008 to 2012.” 

“Now, they weren’t all climate change or weather-related, but a lot of them were,” the Admiral told Senator NO. And he added for good measure, backed up with facts and studies, that those circumstance will only get worse as the population soars and even more people move toward “the economic centers, which are near the ports and facilities that support globalization.” But in our culture of NO, complicated facts, even from respected sources like an four star Admiral with no political ax to grind, rarely get the better of the simplicity and finality of the country’s favorite two letter word.

From closing the detention facility in Guantanamo to passing sensible immigration reform legislation the default political position is NO. Sen. “NO Way” Graham says correctly, “There is bipartisan opposition to closing Gitmo.” OK, so we let the 100 prisoners now on hunger strike in Cuba die with no prospect that their status will ever be judicially resolved and all the while the world looks on in wonder? How does that NO position help our war on terror? With all the attention lavished on the prospect of immigration reform being approved in the Senate the smart money bet is that the bi-partisan proposal that united John McCain with Dick Durbin and Marco Rubio with Chuck Schumer will get a great big NO when it hits the House. To be fair to Sen. Graham he is trying to get to YES on immigration reform, but his friends in the House are safely stuck at NO. It’s what they do in the House of NO.

In California Gov. Jerry Brown has battled the Culture of NO to a standstill on the issue of high speed rail. NO is the default position on improving rail service in the United States even in the face of all the evidence in Europe and Asia where governments and the private sector are investing billions in the surface transportation of the 21st Century. Closer to the city I know best – Boise, Idaho – the forces of NO have opposed even a study of a street car system or, heaven forbid, a valley-linking light rail system. Salt Lake has done it. Portland, too. Denver, Phoenix, Tucson, Seattle all have light rail and enhanced transit on the drawing board and in the ground. But southwestern Idaho, one of the fastest growing areas in the west, has no plan and can’t get beyond the culture of NO.

 The happy blogger Dave Frazier in Boise has fun with these issue on an almost weekly basis and loves that local pols fearfully quake at his regular broadsides. But as entertaining as Dave can be he long ago put his rock on the NO button. In his heart of hearts Frazier is a NO growth guy in an allegedly pro-growth state, but he has out-sized influence in southwestern Idaho because he is for the most part against everything. He is the local blogger who echoes and channels the culture of NO, a comfortable place to be since so few in Idaho disagree with the sentiment that “it can’t be done” and “shouldn’t even be considered.”

Does Idaho need a chancellor system to better govern and coordinate higher education? Of course it does, but try getting to YES on that one. Rep. Mike Simpson, a sensible YES guy, has worked for a decade to get diverse parties together on wilderness protection for some pristine territory in central Idaho, but a few well-placed folks in the NO Caucus keep it from happening. I could go on, but you get the drift.

Late last year the Washington Post had a wonderful story about the culture of NO in, brace yourself, France. Seems that audacious, aggressive entrepreneurs in socialist France are regularly hamstrung by bankers and bureaucrats who can’t get to YES. According to the Post, Alexandre Marciel “a graduate of the prestigious Political Science Institute in Paris, said part of the problem lies in French education, which emphasizes digesting and reproducing previous knowledge rather than coming up with something new. ‘The notions of audacity, or innovation, these are not in the program of French schools,'” he said. Or, I might add, American politics.

So what we really have is the safe, risk averse culture of NO pushing back against the myth of America being the home of the brave and the land of the risk taker. Standing pat and settling for NO has become dominate in political culture since “audacity and innovation” are words seldom found in the same sentence with “it can’t be done and shouldn’t be tried.” American politics has become an exercise is managing risk to maximize time in office. The safe, risk averse path seems to be to do as little as possible in public office, issue a few “over my dead body” press releases liberally laced with NO, and file regularly for re-election.

The really successful politician I know best, four-term Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, has often said, “It’s better to be for something than against something,” but these days its easier – and much safer politically – to just say NO. 

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