A Leadership Moment
When people ask, "How did we get here? What was the critical moment in this budget debate?" My answer: Back in January, when President Obama failed to embrace the work of the Bowles-Simpson, the axis of this debate changed.
Bowles-Simpson was commissioned and set up by the President. Its members came from both parties in order to be "bipartisan." Their work was painstaking: they analyzed data, asked tough questions, framed and debated issues, and called in experts.
In my opinion, they produced an outstanding piece of work and a balanced framework for deficit reduction. I don't agree with all of their recommendations, but I do agree with the overall approach and believe their final product formed an excellent basis for budget negotiations. The recommendations did not get a majority of the commission's votes — but did get notable support from Democratic and Republican members.
Unfortunately, their report was not embraced by the executive branch. During the winter months, there was a brief lull and then the Republicans filled the void with their own agenda for deficit reduction.
By the time there was talk of a "grand bargain" a few weeks ago, there was very little time and no bipartisan groundwork that might have provided the basis for such a deal. This was an enormous lost opportunity.
There's a powerful lesson here for those who wish to see a centrist approach to the budget and our economy. Leaders need to take the reins when they have the opportunity. They must articulate a vision and priorities if they are to lead. Silence creates a vacuum that will be filled by others who are willing to articulate a vision.
The issues of the economy and budget are quite complex. Clever political tactics don't ultimately carry the day. Leaders must take a stand and express their views. If they don't, the center naturally gives way to more extreme initiatives. The results do not serve the nation's interests or the political aspirations of the leaders who stood on the sidelines.
Robert S. Kaplan is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and co-chairman of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a global venture philanthropy firm. He is the author of new book, "What to Ask the Person in the Mirror" by Harvard Business Press (August 2011).