On the Vanity of Political Blame

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On Friday evening, the Obama Administration sent an email to supporters with the following accusation:

“The reason we are here [dealing with the sequester] is because some members of Congress have made a choice to prioritize these cuts over closing tax loopholes for the wealthy.”

Just two hours earlier, a similarly worded email had been much more specific:

“Today, because congressional Republicans refused to act, devastating budget cuts known as the sequester are going into effect.” Tweet quote:

And the day before, not so different:

“Brace yourself.  If congressional Republicans don’t act by tomorrow, we’re going to be hit by a series of devastating, automatic budget cuts called the sequester.”

During his first four years, President Obama was often given a voter’s pass on the economy, the bailouts, and even the War on Terror. Blaming the prior administration’s many faults as part of his challenged inheritance was widely accepted. But over time, the high degree of partisan blame that Obama has leveled at others has grown exhausting.

He didn’t preside over the housing crash of 2008. That was Bush. He didn’t start the bailouts. That was Bush. He didn’t start the War on Terror. That was Bush. All of these claims leading a recent author to dub this Obama trend as something he calls the Oblame Game.

Of course, the patterns of political blame are not and never have been unique to this president or even this era of congressional politicians.

In 2001, during the first year of Bush’s administration, the nation was undergoing a small recession and party politics insisted that Republicans blame Clinton (since Bush had not acquired enough time to repair the damage of his predecessor) while most Democrats preferred to blame Bush (since it should always be the immediate responsibility of a sitting president). Independents and moderate centrists were polled in May 2003, with most of the blame still leaning on Clinton’s administration.

When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he believed he had found a rhetorical method for deflecting all future anger against his administration on the man he would ultimately dethrone.

“I intend to take a new broom to Washington and do everything possible to sweep the house of government clean. Anything you don’t like about Washington, I suggest you blame it on Jerry Ford.”

Nixon pointed fingers at the Kennedy and Johnson administrations for their mishandling of Vietnam. Kennedy blamed Eisenhower for policy errors. Eisenhower blamed Truman and Roosevelt for underestimating the threat of communism in East Asia (China, specifically). And the list goes on.

What makes this all so redundant is that the great ideal of almost every religious individual is to live and maintain a blameless life before God and men; to leave this world without accusation. Likewise, the high honor of a politician is to be eulogized as one who held the common good above his or her own personal interests; to leave this world with selfless acclaim.

If, however, our greatest figureheads are consistently buried under an avalanche of political blame for their actions and their inactions, how can there ever be any true praise? Every man is guilty in the eyes of his enemy, political or otherwise. All have sinned. None are blameless.

We can be certain that the cyclical patterns of political blame are nothing more than the vanities of our own making. We seek to be remembered for what we did well, so we deflect, as best we can, any negative consequence that might otherwise merge with our perfectly imagined legacy. The higher we rise in the social atmosphere, be it in business, religion, or politics, the more precious our legacy becomes. And the more precious our legacy, the more fingers we point.

In 1997, parents were thrilled with the newest Berenstain publication called The Berenstain Bears and the Blame Game. In it, Momma Bear was described as being “miserable” because cries of “he started it,” “no, she started it,” “it was her fault,” and “no, it was his fault” had overtaken an otherwise peaceful home. By the end of the book, after Momma has taught her children a crucial lesson about excessive blame, we find Papa Bear getting the final word:

“Of course, there are times when somebody really is to blame for something. But most of the time, it’s important to remember there’s usually enough blame to go around.”

Such simple, grade school morality is what we teach our little ones throughout their elementary years, but among politically partisan adults, that childlike innocence disappears, leaving a deluded ignorance about the complexity of nationwide problems. Instead of acknowledging the flaws in all (“enough blame to go around”) and allowing room to focus on solutions, preference is given to the first line of Papa Bear’s conclusion (“somebody really is to blame”), entirely omitting the second half and forcing most of us into a conversation about what was said rather than what needs to happen.

Just before the end of the 19th Century, William Hayes Acklen wrote a dialogue between men who were playing a game of cards. One gentleman happens to mention the possibility of a blameless life, to which the other asks, “What is meant by a blameless life?” Their conversation went on for some time (as they do with most card games), but the answer was found in a simple metaphor:

“You can’t measure the stars by the foot-rule you carry in your coat pocket.”

To correctly measure the stars, a multiplicity of tools are required. We accept that our knowledge of their size and shape is only as accurate as the tools we have at our disposal. And even then, we often admit the possibility of later modifications. To claim that we know the full measure of the stars because we happen to have a ruler or a measuring tape in our pocket is nothing more than lunacy. No different is a political claim that every sin, misfortune, and consequence is the result of one man or one group alone, particularly when there is no way to equitably read the hearts and minds of the accused.

Almost three thousand years ago, when Socrates was informed that a jury of his peers had condemned him to death, he mused, “And nature, them.” For while his accusers would find momentary satisfaction in silencing an enemy, nature would soon make them just as silent. Mortality makes every one of us vulnerable to the same frailties.

Second Century Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was prone to meditate on the vanity of his royal, yet human condition; much as King Solomon had done from Jerusalem almost one thousand years earlier. Knowing that he, as an emperor, would one day be forgotten by the majority of the world was a deeply humbling cause for civil service. Contemplating the matter of two men arguing their opinions and accusing each other of wrongdoing, the emperor wrote:

“Remember this, that within a very little while, both thou and he shall both be dead, and after a little while more, not so much as your names and memories shall be remaining. [Therefore] let opinion be taken away, and no man will think himself wronged.”

And later:

“This I say of them, who once shined as the wonders of their ages, for as for the rest, no sooner are they expired, than with them all their fame and memory. And what is it then that shall always be remembered? All is vanity. What is it that we must bestow our care and diligence upon? Even upon this only: that our minds and wills be just; that our actions be charitable; that our speech be never deceitful, or that our understanding be not subject to error; that our inclination be always set to embrace whatsoever shall happen unto us, as necessary.”

President Obama no doubt believes, with all sincerity, that the damage of our present sequester is the fault of the Republican Party and their incessant opposition to his own incessant recommendations. Speaker John Boehner and his party no doubt believe, with all sincerity, that the damage of our present sequester is the fault of a Democratically-controlled Senate and the President.

But twenty years down the road, few will have any recollection of blame. One hundred years after that, few will even research, let alone consider the events or people involved in the sequester. Every pointed finger will belong to the earth. And as we have in history, so shall the next generations find fault with us all.