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Lincoln's Question at Gettysburg Relevant Today, Writes Lee Hamilton '52

December 18, 2009

Lee Hamilton CSPAN.jpgDecember 18, 2009, Greencastle, Ind. — "Maybe it's the recession. Or the perilous state of the war in Afghanistan. Or the growing sense that other nations -- China, India, Brazil -- are rising at a clip we can't match. Suddenly, though, doubts are surfacing about whether our political system can handle the challenges that confront the United States," writes Lee Hamilton, veteran statesman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University, in a newspaper op-ed. "Just before Thanksgiving, same-day op-ed pieces by two leading news commentators -- the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt and the New York Times' Thomas Friedman -- crystallized this concern by asking roughly the same question: Can our government still get things done, or will it allow us to be overwhelmed by the nation's predicaments? It is not very far from that observation to the question Abraham Lincoln raised at Gettysburg as he wondered whether 'a nation so conceived and so Abraham_Lincoln portrait2.jpgdedicated can long endure.'"

The column continues, "Lincoln, of course, was consumed by the Civil War and the long-unresolved conflict over slavery. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when our form of government was first laid out and then put into practice, a political leader might wrestle with just a handful of such first-tier challenges during his lifetime. Today, your average member of Congress has to confront five or six major issues before lunchtime, from the state of the economy to health-care reform to the unsustainability of our national debt to climate change and war overseas"

Hamilton asserts, "In this super-charged atmosphere, as crises come at us with great rapidity and complexity, you have to wonder whether we can sustain effective governance, especially the ability to think long-term and to craft policy solutions that are not enfeebled by the need to appease a thousand different interests" The man who served 34 years in Congress and co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group sees "many reasons for alarm," noting that lawmakers suffer from a state of paralysis in reaching consensus on key issues.

"Some degree of lethargy is built into our constitutional system, which was designed to cool passions and allow for reasoned debate," he writes. "The rise of the 60-vote requirement in the Senate, however, has added a formidable roadblock that puts more power in theUS Capitol 2-2008.jpg hands of those who wish to delay or block the search for a remedy. These developments have been exacerbated by the political division of the country, not just along partisan lines, but into halves that on any given issue either believe we should tackle the problem head-on, or should leave well enough alone. Moreover, cable television and the Internet have empowered the loudest, most divisive voices, which makes consensus in Washington even harder to reach. It takes enormously skilled political leadership to overcome these obstacles, yet skilled politicians are rare -- and in our current political atmosphere even those who are willing to give it a try get shouted down, as they immediately open themselves to the charge that they've betrayed their political party or their supporters"

The Democrat concludes, "It is hardly written in the stars that we will overcome these problems -- or that, to borrow Lincoln's phrase, we will 'long endure.' The only thing I know for certain is that it is Lee Hamilton Strengthening Congress.jpgnot up to politicians alone to make the system work; they may bear the principal responsibility, but we all share in it ... If our political system is to avoid crumbling in the face of the very real challenges we face, it will only be because citizens let their political leaders know that Americans are ready to support those who search for pragmatic solutions to our formidable challenges."

Read the complete text at the Web site of Vermont's Bennington Banner.

Lee H. Hamilton is president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He recently authored Strengthening Congress. Learn more about him in this recent story.

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