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Editor's letter: Searching for flexibility

Could Congress learn something from a hard-line Islamic theocrat like Iran’s Supreme Leader?

Could Congress learn something from a hard-line Islamic theocrat like Iran’s Supreme Leader? Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made headlines last week with his paean to “heroic flexibility”—the idea that sometimes you’re better off yielding, letting passions cool, and waiting for a more auspicious moment to achieve your ends (Best columns: International). “A good wrestler sometimes shows flexibility,” Khamenei said, “but does not forget his opponent or his main goal.” With that far-from-cryptic metaphor, he fed new hope that Iran is ready to budge on its nuclear program—and strong suspicions that any concession now would be a tactical ruse.

Flexibility was clearly not a feature of this week’s brawl over Obamacare and the federal budget. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 21-hour stem-winder to stall proceedings had a heroic aspect, maybe, but he sure wasn’t selling compromise. Neither was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “We will not bow to Tea Party anarchists,” he said. No doubt, a Supreme Leader answering only to Allah can play the crafty long game more easily than members of Congress sweating under intense political pressure and a looming budgetary deadline. But the bigger problem is that this battle, like so many others in Washington these days, has no middle ground; the pols want either no Obamacare or all of it, and the heroics are all at the extremes. Whether the government gets shut down next week or not, the two sides will gird themselves for a similar clash later this month over the even-higher stakes of raising the debt limit. Winning through patient compromise may appeal to the Ayatollah, but it’s just not a working strategy in today’s Washington.

James Graff

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