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Ranking National Political Leaders as College Freshmen

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As we watched the government shutdown and fiscal crisis play out in Washington this week, the first thought crossing the minds of most Americans was how silly and dangerous the high stakes game of "we're not sure what we want but we still want it" was in the court of global public opinion. The agreement to compromise failed the biggest test before it.

National politicians -- in both parties -- didn't fix the problem.

How long will we tolerate this curious and depressing mix of ideology, procedural roadblock, and bad manners? People across the globe can tell the difference between a bandage and surgery. One covers up the problem. The other fixes it.

There were additional, related impressions of this self-inflicted debacle. One of the ones that is most difficult to shake was the sense that national political leaders need to go back to college -- fast.

Since when do national politicians have the luxury to represent only those in their districts who voted for them? How in good conscience can they listen principally to those loyalists who show up at orchestrated town meetings?

Isn't it a better strategy to learn from those who disagree with them? Aren't nationally elected politicians supposed to rise above the practices of local, ward boss politics on matters of national standing?

Isn't the point of being elected partly the presumption that they are ready to govern in the national interest -- that they are ready to lead in prime time? For how long has a national election been diminished to an entitlement for the victors?

In Boston most of us believe that all politics is local. In our own splendid parochialism, we think that we may have invented this concept. Yet we always managed to put forward "born and bred" or locally educated kids with names like Adams, Hancock, Revere, Franklin, Roosevelt, King, Kennedy, O'Neill, Bush and Bloomberg nationally when their country needed them.

What we are seemingly missing is that national politicians must have a broader definition of local -- meaning the world stage since they hold U.S. passports n the 21st century -- and a responsibility not to embarrass America on it.

It might be helpful if they knew that their job was to demonstrate leadership through the collective wisdom inherent in a maturing democracy. It's especially important when our global economic future is pegged to faith in the American dollar.

Sadly, there are powerful lessons national politicians still must learn.

We educate our leaders largely in the liberal arts tradition in America. American students are trained to speak, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in collaborative settings -- the very essence of a liberal arts education. We prepare them for the workplace. We also educate them as citizens with a sense of loyalty and service to their country.

So, how did national political leaders rate as liberally educated citizens over the past few weeks?

Lots of rhetoric floated across cable during the debate. Little of it was measured, temperate or informed. The best suggestions and most helpful comments came from Comedy Central and Senator McCain. Rating: D-

The writing was a little better. Thoughtful trial balloons showed up occasionally in the press. Sadly, America now responds better to canned sound bite rhetoric with political pundits. Op-eds have become an insider's game of tactical politics floated as future polling questions. We witnessed no great moments of soaring rhetoric that pulled America together. Rating: F

National politicians apparently feel comfortable with numbers even if these numbers are not real. When is a national default not a default -- technically -- when you are down to your last $30 billion and the bills come do? When did "pay as you go" become "pay when you want"?

No one spoke to the most important numbers -- the estimated $24 billion that their game of political chicken cost the country and the related quantifiable loss in jobs. The random and trivialized use of numbers demonstrated a government in self-paralyzed crisis shaped by anecdote and polling. Rating: F

National politicians know how to use technology, except of course when they shut down the government research offices or attempt to institute the Affordable Care Act. It might be easier to call in Amazon to help them set up better web navigation tools if we intend to shape global economic policy and the national budget through Twitter. Rating: F

The one glimmer was the ability of a few adults to work in collaborative settings. Hats off to the Senate's women and Senators Reid and McConnell. They forged a temporary compromise. It was a profile in courage even if the profile was produced on an etch-a-sketch.

Be warned early, however, that is not likely that Americans will tolerate "temporary" before "solution" much longer than the next general election. Rating: D

In a good college, these rankings would place our national political leaders both on academic and social probation. As college freshman, they would be told to study harder, go to class more often, seek remedial help, and stay out of Mexican cantinas on Capitol Hill. They would also be warned further that failure to improve could have them dismissed at the end of the term.

Maybe that's why John Belushi was identified as a future U.S. Senator at the end of Animal House. It's all beginning to make sense now.