What Bismarck termed the art of the possible is now a key political skill As a boy, I enjoyed kicking a can down a road. It was free. It was fun. It required only a little skill. It sometimes annoyed people I quite liked annoying. But no great harm was ever caused.
Maybe this explains why, as a commentator, I struggle to be outraged by the accusation that a bunch of politicians have kicked another can down another road. For the past couple of years this can-kicking charge has been repeatedly deployed, from both left and right, against the leaders of the European Union for their handling of the eurozone crisis. There is certainly a lot to criticise about the EU. But it is beginning to look as though kicking the European can may have been a lot smarter than the censorious critics alleged.
This week the can-kicking accusation has been wheeled out once more, to condemn the congressional deal over Washington's turn-of-year fiscal cliff shenanigans. This week's deal solves nothing, charge the opinion-formers, of left and right alike. The left denounces Barack Obama for bending the knee over taxes on the rich, while the right complains that all spending decisions have been wimpishly postponed - the deficit just keeps growing and the hard choices remain, the same as before the deadline, guaranteeing fresh battles ahead.
But are compromise and inconclusive outcomes such bad things? The world is not simple. Raising taxes on the rich may be morally right, as well as good politics when times are hard for all, but the enduring reality is that it balances few budget books. So Obama's concession on the threshold at which the reversion to pre-2002 tax levels kicks in may not make much economic difference. But it splits the Republican Party on Capitol Hill, which is very useful.
At the same time it gives the President the chance to claim wider kudos for demanding and getting a quick deal. It thus clears the decks for Obama's second inaugural speech and state of the union address, both this month. These are important considerations.
Even more important is the fact that the argument about the spending side of the US deficit has now been divorced from the argument about the revenue side. The two are no longer held hostage by one another. This is a major defeat for the small-is-good dogma about government. It means spending can be judged for its social and economic effect as well as its fiscal impact. And while it would be utterly foolish to deny the long-term dangers of debt, there is little sense in lurching into a severe program of federal austerity right now either.
Balancing any budget is important. Nevertheless it is not the supreme public good, eclipsing all others. This week's postponement may not be pretty. All the same, it makes sense economically and politically. And since a domestically strong Obama is arguably a crucial precondition to securing better global outcomes on issues ranging from climate change and world trade to Middle East peace, the US budget deal could prove to be a can well kicked.
Kicking the can is not invariably the right policy, of course. If the avoidance of taking a stand was an end in itself, Neville Chamberlain would be a revered international statesman and Nero a byword for wise leadership when cities are on fire. Sometimes a risk must be taken. So it would be just as daft to elevate can-kicking into the overriding political virtue as to privilege spending cuts (or spending increases, or anything else) as the acme of public virtue.
But if, as Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible, then kicking the proverbial can may often be a necessary part of that art. Living to fight another, hopefully better, day has always been vital in politics. The reflex of not inflicting avoidable harm on others, a natural can-kicker's reflex, is a worthy one too. And while holding a shared institutional and cultural network like the EU or the US Congress together is not always worthwhile at any cost, it is generally better than the alternatives - a difficult judgment that great leaders have sometimes been forced to make.
That is especially true in modern democratic politics in the post-industrial developed world. Leaders today kick the can down the road not because they are personally feeble and useless but because our societies have, in effect, chosen to deny them the authority to boss us around except in exceptional circumstances. Modern political leaders are not all-powerful, thank goodness. They are routinely constrained from taking decisive action by checks and balances that include laws, treaties, elections, coalitions, opinion polls and, not least, markets.
Modern leaders operate under formal and informal rules with which, broadly speaking, modern electorates feel comfortable most of the time. Sometimes the electorates are wrong and sometimes right. The Iraq war, 10 years ago this year, is an example of the latter. Much of public opinion preferred George Bush and Tony Blair to kick the Iraqi can down the road. Bush and Blair refused and set themselves against the public. Once the war had failed, the public punished them. Today's politicians have learnt the lesson.
The media encourage can-kicking too, often unintentionally, especially in Britain. By treating political leaders as figures of derision and even abuse rather than men and women who may sometimes be worthy of respect, the media help to ensure that political leaders are weakened and cautious. Faced with a can in a road, they therefore kick it.
Opinion-formers make a particular contribution here. By fostering the impression that the courses open to political leaders are much clearer, simpler, more moral and more radical than in fact they are almost all of the time, commentators of all persuasions can set governments up to fail. In that sense, the media are integral parts of creating the culture of can-kicking of which, in other modes, they so grandly disapprove.
Perhaps in 2013 the rules of modern politics will change. Perhaps a perfectly constructed and universally supported European Union, effective but not overbearing, will be forged to confound us. Perhaps voters and corporate interests in the US and elsewhere will converge around a set of financial measures that put the interest of all above the interests of some. Yet unless and until modern democratic politics changes more radically than it showed much sign of doing in 2012, we must expect that politicians are going to kick a lot of cans down a lot of roads for many years to come, and still be right to do so.