Rep. James Clyburn, the Grand Strand’s favorite Democrat, told the S.C. Delegation at the Democratic National Convention he would never forget the dark days of September 2008 when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told him to rush into a meeting.
“There is a serious problem,” she told him.
“I thought maybe our caucus was being challenged,” Clyburn thought.
Instead, they were told that the country’s financial system was on “the brink of collapse.”
“We were told that within 30 days, the stock market would crash and that this time, it ain’t gonna be like 1929 because our economy is so global it will bring down economies all across the globe,” Clyburn said.
He was recounting that moment to remind the group about the enormous challenges Barack Obama faced when he became president and told them to stop being cowed into being silent about that reality.
“We as Democrats have allowed ourselves to be bullied,” he said. “We’ve allowed them to tell us that we can’t talk about that. You can’t get to now without knowing about then. You are measured by how far you go based on where you came from.”
That part of his speech was pep rally, but the other part was more revealing.
He remembered sitting around Pelosi’s conference room and hammering out a deal among Democrats and Republicans to try to prevent another Great Depression.
When they were digesting the news, party didn’t much matter.
Democrats had no real political incentive to work with the Bush administration, which was going to be blamed for whatever happened, because sitting presidents always are, no matter the complex reasons the disaster was unfolding the way it was.
Republicans had long railed against government interference in the private sector and insisted that the market should be allowed to take care of the economy and weak companies should be allowed to fail. They knew signing off on a massive $700 billion bailout would be bad for their brand.
In that moment, at that table, Republican and Democratic leaders put those concerns aside and came up with a plan they knew would be unpopular, but was necessary to avoid economic calamity. They knew they would not receive much praise for saving the country from another Great Depression, but would get scorn.
It was harder to get many of their colleagues in line, but the plan eventually passed and it helped prevent the largest banks in the country from going under and pulling the rest of us with them.
Often, we say we want leaders who will make the hard choices because they are the right choices, even if they are unpopular.
We often say we want leaders to put aside their differences and work across the aisle, to put country before party or political prospects.
We often say we want leaders who are up to the task in moments of crisis.
But that’s not really true. We want our way of thinking, our view of the world, to be validated, almost at all cost. We want what we want, damn the rest.
Clyburn’s retelling of that September 2008 story was aimed at fellow Democrats in a close election year. But it should speak loudly to the American public in general, that it makes little long-term sense for the health of the country to punish leaders for making a hard call in a tough situation just because the actions don’t fit neatly into our own philosophy.
The Clinton administration set up the first unit to go after Osama bin Laden. The Bush administration put in place measures to beef up our security and track terrorists. The Obama administration built upon all of the lessons learned and technology created to finally get bin Laden.
Instead of celebrating that trajectory of progress, even the killing of the world’s most wanted terrorist became a partisan debate.
The Bush administration floated the domestic auto companies enough money to survive to give the Obama administration a chance to decide to invest more. The domestic auto industry is stronger today because of both those decisions, not just one.
We avoided a Great Depression because of actions begun at the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration.
And yes, the $16 trillion in debt and $1 trillion deficit on the country’s books are also the result of a bipartisan effort – as was the decision to launch two wars – to spend money we didn’t have while cutting the revenue needed to pay for programs a majority of Americans wanted.
And yes, the Republican Party boldly started making plans to regain power by opposing just about everything Obama did. They said if the economy got better, most incumbents would win anyway, no matter who was responsible for the turnaround, and if it didn’t, the party in power would lose, no matter who was to blame.
In 2010, that strategy worked.
Yes, we must expect more from our leaders.
But we shouldn’t forget that we’ve helped to create an environment in which making tough, selfless decisions are punished and sticking to talking points and rigid ideology improves re-election odds.