Guns: The Broken Marriage of Politics and Public Policy

by Bob Schwartz

In a fantasy world, the marriage between politics and public policy is an ideal one. Each loving and respectful partner contributes thoughtfully and constructively, and the outcomes are not just positive, but even better than we could imagine.

Suspend imagining and consider this. The offspring are often so ugly and unacceptable that we avert our eyes, ashamed not of the partisans and pragmatists we have put in positions of power, but of ourselves for our reticence and complicity.

The New York Times reports  that after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in early 2011:

The Justice Department drew up a detailed list of steps the government could take to expand the background-check system in order to reduce the risk of guns falling into the hands of mentally ill people and criminals.…Most of the proposals, though, were shelved at the department a year ago as the election campaign heated up and as Congress conducted a politically charged investigation into the Operation Fast and Furious gun trafficking case, according to people familiar with the internal deliberations.

Even if none of the proposals—some of which would not have required Congressional action—would have altered anything in Connecticut is beside the point. Politics stood in the way of positive policy and brought it to a standstill. Once again.

This election year has been a test. We muster moments of idealism, gathering genuine evidence of progress. But time after time, something happens to draw us back to a lingering cynicism we can’t shake. We have to shake it, for the sake of all of us, for the sake of those who are weak and need our strength, for the sake of the broken who need fixing. But it can be so very hard.

Jimmy Carter was one of the most interesting President’s of his generation. We know that from his distinguished career as a statesman and man of public faith after he left office. But even as President, he brought a certain humanity and candor to the office that was unique. This also left him uniquely vulnerable, as events and political strategy overtook him.

In the midst of the energy crisis of 1979, Carter gave an address since known as the “malaise” speech, even though he never used that word. In it he said:

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. . . . I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might. The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. . . .

There is no direct connection between that speech and the current circumstances. Except if we don’t use today to start examining “the meaning of our own lives and…the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation”—an examination we suspended for this election year—we are never going to get back to it.

We have to start criticizing those we otherwise like and praising those we otherwise don’t, without worrying about political impact. Every Democrat winning or losing, every Republican winning or losing, is not going to change things. Jimmy Carter’s “crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will” is inexorably tied up with the events of this week. We are going to find that will, starting today.