The debt deal’s lessons in humility

Perhaps there’s a reason the Oval Office in the White House is oval. There’s no sharp corner to retreat to, no straight wall to defend. Voices bounce better off the curved walls, forcing one to listen. How else to explain the debt-and-spending deal, struck over weeks of talks between a Republican House speaker and a Democratic president, that finally passed Congress on Thursday?

Well, the participants inside that hallowed, humbling room have different reasons than the oval architecture. President Joe Biden said that negotiating a compromise to avoid a debt default meant “not everyone gets what they want.” That hints at a willingness to see one’s blind spots, reconsider one’s importance, and expand one’s views to see alternatives. As the president put it, “That’s the responsibility of governing.”

The traditional dynamics of power – threats, brinkmanship, intellectual hubris – certainly played a role during the political showdown. Yet one key negotiator in the room, House Republican Patrick McHenry, experienced an open-mindedness and a presumption that the other person might hold an element of truth. “What I saw in the Oval Office … was a willingness to engage with each other in a sincere way – air disagreements, listen,” he told Reuters.

Listening usually means self-effacement, even a letting go of the fear of being duped. Here is what Mr. Biden said of Speaker Kevin McCarthy: “I think he negotiated with me in good faith. He kept his word.” Within the House chambers, too, Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told the Monitor that he and the speaker “continue to have open, honest, consistent communication.”

Humility is far more than modesty. It is more than seeing one’s limits. It is being open to the possibility of shared wisdom.The final compromise crafted in the Oval Office may merely be seen as a balancing of interests, a splitting of differences. Each side “got something.” Yet this rare exercise of bipartisanship in a polarized Washington also needs to be celebrated. The gentleness of oval walls may not have anything to do with it. But gentle meekness might have.

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