One of the benefits of my career working for Capital Cities/ABC, which owned the Star-Telegram most of the time I was president and publisher there, was the chance to work with some great business people. Not everyone who worked for the company, even in executive positions, met that criterion but there were some top leaders in the group. One was the company’s chairman, Tom Murphy, and another was one of its major investors, Warren Buffett.
Both of these men came to mind during the recent government shutdown and its resolution that left Republicans looking weak, confused and beaten. One of Murphy’s closest business colleagues told me that Murphy was able to build a great, word-class company, Capital Cities – which ended up being the minnow that swallowed the whale (ABC) and eventually sold it all at a premium to Disney – because of one trait. “He had incredible common sense,” I was told. “He never let ego drive a deal or get in the way of either closing an acquisition or knowing when to walk away from one.”
Buffett was a friend of Murphy’s and took a major investment position in the combined company when Capital Cities bought ABC so that he could block a hostile takeover if someone tried one. He used to come to our annual management meetings, and one year he was asked why he had exited so quickly from one of his investments that had not been doing well. “I know when to quit when I am behind,” he said. The Republicans in Congress who provoked the shutdown and who hoped to make a stand against Obamacare would do well to look at lessons from both of these men. They showed no common sense.
The most powerful and successful country in the world is not going to let its government be shut down, at least not for long. And neither is it going to default on its debt. Common sense should have prevailed, particularly with the tea party folks who senselessly prolonged this national embarrassment. They never had a chance of winning. And once they saw that no one was backing down, especially President Obama, they should have known they were hopelessly behind and should have quit. Follow the Buffett doctrine of winning and losing. Following passage of the bill Oct. 16 to raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government, the president said there were no victors in this fight. He was only half right. There were no winners but there were many losers. Obama had the power to stop all the nonsense immediately but he was too inflexible and prideful to show real leadership. He can be stubborn but his lack of true decisiveness is epic. This is a president who fails the test of leadership over and over again. Add his recent failure in reacting to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, for example – he talked tough then backed down, handing off the problem to Russia and the United Nations – to the government shutdown and a long list of failures in both foreign and domestic policy and you have an American government repeatedly embarrassed in the eyes of the world community. What will be interesting to see is how Republicans react to what has been a stunning defeat. We will not have to wait long to find out if they learned from their mistakes. One lesson would be to pick fights they can win.
Serious issues still abound. The nation’s new health care program – Obamacare, as most Americans call it these days – is off to a horrible start. There has been snafu after snafu with those trying to sign up. The early glitches, most related to inadequate preparation by government websites for the onslaught of applicants, may eventually be resolved. But the public’s underlying concerns about the cost and scope of Obamacare are not going away. And Obama clearly has no plan or even an inclination to deal with those concerns. On top of that, the bill ending the shutdown and extending the federal debt ceiling was just a temporary solution. The government has spending authority through Jan. 15, 2014. The new ceiling on debt expires Feb. 7. Another fiscal crisis is just around the corner. Addressing these problems – and, more importantly, solving them – does not require advanced degrees or high intellect. Common sense will do the trick. Americans are frustrated. Republicans need to leverage the will of the people.
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