Harry Reid, Henry Clay

When President Obama meets congressional leaders about the debt ceiling, I hope a powerful presence in the room will be the spirit of Henry Clay, who was a great Speaker of the House, the great compromiser in the Congress and a great hero of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Republicans today are to post-partisanship what Casey Anthony is to motherhood.

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The president has never come to grips with the contradiction of trying to be a part-partisan president facing a hyper-partisan GOP. One solution would be to name America’s leading political independent and post-partisan officeholder, the financially brilliant and vastly respected Michael Bloomberg, as Treasury secretary if Timothy Geithner chooses to leave.

If the debt-ceiling increase is defeated and triggers a global crash, it would be analogous to World War I, the war nobody wanted, caused by miscalculation.

If there is a U.S. default, it would be because the GOP believes it can bully and blackmail the president and the nation by taking positions on taxes that were rejected by every Republican leader over many generations, including and especially President Reagan.

The GOP leader in the Senate said his great priority is defeating the president, not creating jobs. The GOP Speaker of the House needs a food taster when dining with his majority leader, who has what Shakespeare called the lean and hungry look. The GOP House is dominated by members who are radical rightists by standards of historical Republicanism, while those radical rightists fear GOP primaries from those who are even more radical and more rightist.

I would suggest that at this painful moment in our economic history, it is Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, who is the greatest grown-up in this sorry affair, because he knows when to fight, how to compromise and why America needs both jobs and deficit reduction.

If Harry Reid were king, the “grand bargain” would include major support for job creation, broad budget cuts that are balanced and fair and shared sacrifice by wealthy Americans who today make zero sacrifice while other Americans endure hardship and pain.

Reid battles for a compromise that would be simple in previous historical eras of higher standards and greater statesmanship. But Reid is surrounded by a GOP House that is rightist and extreme, GOP senators who use obstruction to destroy the Senate and a Democratic president who fails to fight even for ending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires that up to 80 percent of Americans want eliminated.

If only the president would do once what Reagan did often: address the nation to rally millions of people to deluge Congress on great matters of high purpose!

Meanwhile, the radical Republicans mock the legacy of Reagan, who treated opponents with respect, often considered opponents as friends, never treated opponents as enemies, always knew compromise meant meeting opponents halfway and often accepted tax increases in larger bargains.

The lesson for Democrats in 2012 was taught by Harry Reid in 2010, who fought back ferociously and obliterated Sharron Angle to be reelected.

Even more important are the lessons in American history of Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay was the great compromiser, not the great obstructor. Not all Kentuckians are created equal.

Harry Reid understands why Lincoln described Clay as “my ideal of a great man.”

Harry Reid, like Henry Clay, knows there is a time to campaign and a time to govern. Reid, like Clay and Kennedy and Reagan, knows when to battle and how to negotiate.

Harry Reid, like Henry Clay, believes that legislators should legislate, and that honorable compromise means fighting hard for principle but meeting opponents halfway to serve a hurting and divided nation, with a gridlocked and divided government.

When the doors are closed and the president meets congressional leaders, I am glad the grown-up Reid will be in the room. The spirit of Henry Clay will be there, too. 

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at brentbbi@webtv.net.