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
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2204 GMT (0604 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT