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Posted by on Dec 12, 2008 in Politics | 18 comments

The Real Failure of the Auto Bailout That Wasn’t

I turned 40 in 2005. The resulting ‘midlife crisis’ was remarkably subdued. I didn’t buy a fancy sports car. I didn’t cheat on my wife. I didn’t join a rock band. I didn’t start drinking more or visiting casinos every night.

I did, however, attempt to write a book. In fact, I completed a draft of 200-some-odd pages; a treatise on re-imagining the practice of public relations, my profession of 20 years. In those pages, I proposed a transformation of public relations, moving the trade away from its manipulative origins (reference Larry Tye’s biography of Edward Bernays, “The Father of Spin”) toward a new focus on the careful, studied, substantive improvement of public relationships.

After a couple months shopping the manuscript, I gave up on it and wrote an essay, summarizing the premise, with the intent of serializing the book. That first essay was eventually published online by the Public Relations Society of America. But by that point, I had tired of the exercise and started to think more about something a friend and colleague suggested after he read the book’s manuscript. He said the ideas in that manuscript might have less to do with the PR profession, more to do with the range of human conduct in the public square.

His suggestion intrigued me and led me, in early 2006, to revisit my abiding interest in politics — right around the time a majority of the electorate decided to stop its six-year habit of hitting the snooze button on our national alarm clock and wake up. By April 2006, I attempted to give voice to this post-slumber consciousness in an op-ed in our hometown paper, wherein, among other things, I confessed the following:

… I’ve joined an expanding universe of stranded souls, a disenchanted majority that our nation’s leaders might better appreciate if they stopped lecturing professional ballplayers and tapped into the blogosphere or tuned into a few radio talk shows.

What drives this disenchanted majority? Our distaste for both parties’ collective pandering to the far ends of the ideological spectrum. We stand at neither end of that spectrum. We are not entirely for, nor are we entirely against, the war in Iraq or immigration reform or warrantless wiretapping or any of the other issues that dominate political discourse.

Instead, we stand for reasonable dialogue about productive solutions to a complex world; solutions that, if history teaches us anything, will require compromise between the extreme right and extreme left.

While I’ve broken-record repeated those themes ever since, I was still mildly surprised this morning to realize that — despite often feeling lost and alienated and politically indecisive; despite a constant sense of vertigo caused by incessant flips and flops on various issues — at least one fundamental conviction has endured for two-plus years, namely: The answers to our challenges will consistently be discovered in a smart blend of ideas from left and right, north and south.

In turn, that conviction led to anger, later in the morning, as I read about the Senate’s failure to reach an agreement on how to save the jobs threatened by the potentially imminent collapse of GM and Chrysler.

Like many Americans, I’m opposed to a blank-check approach to this conundrum. But there are (at least) a million-and-one alternatives between a blank-check approach and doing nothing — which is precisely why I find reports like this one infuriating:

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has auto plants in his state, has been torn between the warring factions of his party. He had waited until Thursday to announce his opposition to the bill, then later embraced a proposal by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to beef up the administration bill by setting out specific steps for bondholders and labor to take to slash General Motors’ debt and operating costs by the end of March or see the company go into bankruptcy.

Republicans had hoped to use the Corker proposal to deflect blame that they had no viable alternative …

But Republicans failed to rally around the Corker plan until late Thursday, preventing them from properly explaining it to the public. McConnell dispatched Corker to find a bipartisan solution with Democrats, but the talks stretched through the night, and Corker ultimately failed to sell a revised plan to the GOP caucus.

Now, read that excerpt again.

On the one hand, Corker’s proposal — “to beef up the administration bill by setting out specific steps for bondholders and labor to take to slash General Motors’ debt and operating costs by the end of March or see the company go into bankruptcy” — seems damn smart; one of those million-and-one alternatives between blank-check or nothing. But then, we learn that: McConnell “waited until Thursday to announce his opposition to the [bailout] bill” and back Corker’s proposal. The GOP “failed to rally around the Corker plan until late Thursday.” McConnell sent Corker in to the Democratic Caucus, apparently alone and at the last minute, “to find a bipartisan solution.” Corker subsequently “failed to sell a revised plan to the GOP caucus.”

If accurate, this snapshot makes it clear that the real failure behind the larger failure was not a failure of proposals or principles or imagination, but of negligence, which no amount of rhetoric about bipartisan compromise can defeat.