Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

An ineffectual Washington blew it

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
March 3, 2013 -- Updated 1405 GMT (2205 HKT)
 Bob Greene says official Washington couldn't reach a compromise to avert forced spending cuts. The country lost.
Bob Greene says official Washington couldn't reach a compromise to avert forced spending cuts. The country lost.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Washington failed to find a way to avoid forced spending cuts
  • He says Americans can usually ignore Congress' constant barking at moon. Not this time
  • This time Obama and Congress failure to compromise hits people more directly at home
  • Greene: Even if it was in a 'smoke-filled" back room, leaders used to be able to make a deal

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- What should most worry the leaders of the federal government -- the president, the top officials in Congress, Democrats, Republicans, everyone who failed to find a way to avoid the forced budget cuts?

What should make them fully understand what the stakes of their ineffectuality really are?

Those stakes, in the end, have little to do with numbers or dollar figures.

The stakes are considerably more profound than that.

A hint of what those stakes are can be found in an unlikely place -- a scene in the wonderful 1986 movie "Hoosiers," about basketball in small-town Indiana.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Early in the movie, one of the townspeople -- he's not very likeable, but his words are memorable -- confronts the newly arrived coach.

The man says:

"Look, mister. There's two kinds of dumb. Guy that gets naked and runs out in the snow and barks at the moon. . .and guy who does the same thing in my living room.

"First one don't matter. The second one, you're kind of forced to deal with."

Most of the time, official Washington can bark at the moon all it wants, and the nation merely shrugs. Barking at the moon, it often seems, is Washington's job description.

But once in a while, the country feels that the barking has moved into America's living rooms -- that it's time to pay closer attention.

And when the country decides, person by person, that the men and women they have elected are not up to the job, that's a tenuous place for the United States to be.

Gergen: Americans sick of budget soap opera

The White House and members of Congress have known since the summer of 2011 that, unless they could come up with a way to reach a compromise — together, across party lines -- the mandatory, across-the-board budget cuts would kick in.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



They couldn't do it.

They played a game, and the country lost.

"Brinksmanship," it's called. The term is one of bravado -- daring the other side to blink. In his recent book "Ike's Bluff," journalist and historian Evan Thomas traces the term back to John Foster Dulles, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state. Dulles took pride in bluffing Communist nations of that era to back down: "If you run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are inevitably lost."

But if brinksmanship as a tool in international diplomacy is a risky proposition, brinksmanship as a constant, cynical tactic in domestic politics can make the citizens -- the voters -- resentful and angry. Voters don't want to hear why the men and women they elected can't get the job done. No one forced the elected officials to run for the offices they now hold.

"The U.S. governs by crisis these days," Richard McGregor and James Politi wrote last week in the Financial Times, "and neither side seems capable of doing anything about it."

Both sides, in explaining their positions as the budget cuts were about to take effect, seemed to all but confirm that analysis. President Barack Obama, speaking to reporters at the White House, said:

"So ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, 'We need to go to catch a plane,' I can't have Secret Service block the doorway, right?"

McCain: Everyone shares blame for cuts
US foreign aid on budget chopping block
How to define a devastating budget cut

McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, said: "But there will be no last-minute, back-room deal."

Yet last-minute deals, back-room or not, are what elected officials at the loftiest levels are supposed to be masters of. Brinksmanship doesn't work if the people at the wheels go hurtling over the brink.

On South Michigan Avenue in Chicago there is a hotel, the Blackstone -- now a part of the Renaissance chain -- that is more than a century old. The Blackstone was where the political phrase "smoke-filled room" originated; in 1920, Warren G. Harding was chosen as the Republican candidate for president by a group of leaders meeting there to hammer out a consensus, even as the official convention was in session in a different part of town. A wire-service reporter wrote that the choice had been worked out "in a smoke-filled room," and it became part of the language.

It's probably sacrilege these days to say anything positive about decisions made privately in smoke-filled rooms (and the Blackstone is a no-smoking-anywhere-on-the-premises hotel today, anyway). But it's hard to imagine that many people would object if leaders of both parties locked themselves up in a room and didn't emerge until they had, at long last, fashioned a reasonable solution to the budget turmoil. It is, after all, what they are paid to do.

Many members of Congress work in a pair of buildings named for men who, in an earlier era, understood that. The Rayburn House Office Building, named for longtime Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, and the Dirksen Senate Office Building, named for longtime Republican Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, recognize leaders of different parties and different ideologies who knew how, in the end, to cut through the mess and get things done.

Meanwhile, as the first workweek of the forced budget cuts begins Monday, expect a familiar sound from Washington:

More barking at the moon.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT