-- When does standing for one principle violate other principles?
From the Republican viewpoint, the showdown that gripped the Capitol pit one widely held principle (antagonism toward Obamacare) against another one (financial responsibility). In cases like this, lawmakers have to weigh not only the moral value of one against the other, but also the practical consequences of one against the other.
In the minds of mainstream Republicans, the tea partiers made the wrong choice. But in the minds of the rebels, they made the right choice, calculating that the sense of financial responsibility of their rivals would make them fold.
These rebels weren’t the only ones playing that game, however. The Democrats made the same calculation, convincing themselves that the party of business would bend to business values, allowing them to keep Obamacare free from fetters. Of such calculations are crises made.
-- When do we prize steely determination and when do we condemn it?
That sounds like a hard one, but it’s really easy, which is why the country faced such a threat this month. We prize steely determination when we like a cause (integration is a good example) and we condemn it when we revile a cause (segregation, for instance).
-- When does a leader’s responsibility rest with expressing the will of his followers and when does it rest with serving a greater good? And does a leader have the right, or responsibility, to discern a greater good?
Welcome to John Boehner’s world -- and to the prison of his position.
From the beginning he knew what his conservative wing wanted, and he knew that financial default was a political, financial and moral disaster. If he did not know it at the beginning, he surely knew a week into the struggle that there was little likelihood of reconciling what some of his supporters wanted and what the nation needed.
Boehner knew that his was a conundrum for the ages, a choice, like so much else in this episode, between competing perspectives -- and a test case in one of the hardest decisions in life, and in politics: when to fight on principle and when to quit in principle.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.