It's Time for Common Ground

“Politics, it seems to me, for years, or all too long, has been concerned with right or left instead of right or wrong.” — Richard Armour, American poet and novelist

Following last year’s election, which returned Democrats to a congressional majority for the first time in 12 years, both President Bush and soon-to-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged themselves to a noble cause: the pursuit of common ground. The president said, “I believe we can find some common ground with the Democrats.” Rep. Pelosi agreed, saying, “Extending the hand of partnership to the president — not partisanship, but partnership — (I) say let’s work together to come to some common ground where we can solve the problem in Iraq.”

It sounded good to the public, most of whom do not embrace the extremes of left or right. Unfortunately, the idea was stillborn. The plague of partisanship that has so infected politics for the last 25 years would not be cured with high-minded statements from the top leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties. It wasn’t long before partisan business as usual resumed.

Today’s divisions are caused by a polarization, unseen at this depth in a long time. Politics has always been a contact sport, but the elements cheering and promoting division for their own ends are more intense than any we’ve witnessed in all our years in Washington.

Dr. James Q. Wilson, professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California, defined polarization in a February 2006 essay for Commentary magazine: “an intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from people in another, rival group.” In other words, the goal of polarization is to knock off the other side before they knock you off.

We no longer debate ideas and settle for the best of them, whether we agree completely or not. We now seek to demonize the “other side” as having ideas born in the mind of Satan. One’s opponent, or the opposing side, is smeared as evil and corrupt with no redeeming qualities. Once one has been so labeled, it is difficult to search for, much less reach, common ground. Who wants to be associated with people out to “destroy America”? We thought that was the objective of Osama bin Laden, not our fellow Americans of the opposite party.

Numerous interest groups benefit financially from polarization. Others profit by increasing their political power. Television — especially cable TV — promotes confrontation over conversation. We have been called by show bookers and asked for our opinions on certain subjects. When they prove not to be as extreme as what the booker is looking for, we have been passed over in favor of people with more toxic views. The preferred guests are people who will shout at each other, question the other person’s patriotism and accuse the other of trying to ruin the country, rather than two people who might do their best to agree on policies that could benefit the majority.

The primary goal of most activists on the extreme right and left is to demonize the opposition in a way that enhances the interests of the polarizers. We should know. We have done our share to fan the flames of polarization. We can say with assurance born of experience that common ground would threaten the place of polarizers at the top of their organizations and reduce their influence at the political table.

Numerous surveys over several years have found that Americans believe even the most partisan issues — from abortion to Iraq — can be resolved, or at least moved from stalemate, with an honest commitment from elected leaders in Washington to find consensus. More importantly, voters are prepared to punish candidates whose extremist positions make that objective impossible.

We believe polarization’s dominance over politics is coming to an end. While we recognize that polarizers will always be with us, like most bullies, polarizers aren’t nearly as tough as their reputations would have you believe. We believe it is possible — indeed it is essential — that, in the next two election cycles, polarization will be eclipsed by a return to bipartisanship and consensus. Common ground politics will emerge as the preferred territory where smart politics is played and polarization will be relegated to the fringes where it belongs.

To do this we have set out several specific recommendations in our new book “Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America.” The first, modeled on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, would have the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees appear together four times — once in each region of the country — during the 2008 presidential campaign. Each candidate would find something worthy to say about the character of the other and agree on something the other has said so that — no matter who wins — that policy would be incorporated into the new president’s agenda.
No matter which candidate wins, he (or she) should promise to govern on common ground principles and mean it. Here are some of our recommendations. They are by no means exhaustive, but they are a beginning:

PRINCIPLE 1. There must be agreement that a problem exists and agreement on the goal that needs to be reached to solve the problem. Without an agreement that a problem exists, no goals can be reached. Not all issues suggest agreement. We disagree on the approach to guns, for example. In such cases it is better to move on to other issues, lest the common ground waters become poisoned over one failure to reach consensus. We agree there are too many abortions and that providing more information to women would substantially reduce their number without legislation or intervention by the Supreme Court. Polarizers would oppose such an approach because it gives neither side all it wants, but it would reduce the number of abortions, which pro-life and pro-choice people claim to want.

PRINCIPLE 2. For a controversial issue to be resolved in a common ground climate, it must contain elements of the historical orthodoxy of both parties. Republicans favor individual responsibility, accountability and entrepreneurial capitalism; Democrats believe in helping the powerless and the “little guy” against the politically powerful and wealthy. We believe both of these historical orthodoxies can be used to forge a common ground approach to a lot of issues, which could lead to…

PRINCIPLE 3. Chances for consensus on a solution increase dramatically when fresh ideas are brought to the table. Poverty is an example. We believe both the government (this appeals to Democrats) and the private sector (this appeals to Republicans) can work together to reduce poverty in America. We believe that without adding new government programs, but applying the micro-loan principles successfully practiced by the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, poverty in America can be substantially reduced.
PRINCIPLE 4. A common ground strategy for governing must be provided with the maximum possible amount of political cover. The increase in the federal minimum wage earlier this year received support from Republicans and Democrats. After Democrats argued for it and Republicans against it, the two sides reached agreement when Democrats supported a Republican position of tax breaks for small business, which Republicans believed would be harmed by a minimum-wage increase. Both sides got something. Neither side achieved everything. Common ground was served and people who make the minimum wage can have a higher floor from which to start out their working lives and, it is hoped, move up the ladder.

A major contributor to the division and animosity that grips Washington and the nation is the poisoning of personal relationships. Former Democratic Congressman Tony Hall calls Washington a “suitcase town” where members no longer spend much time and spouses often stay home in their states or districts. Increasingly, members of Congress know those on the “other side” only by label and not as individuals. The salons once presided over by the likes of Pearl Mesta are mostly extinct. When members of Congress do socialize, it is increasingly and exclusively with people of similar political persuasions, or with lobbyists who want something from them.

Esther Coopersmith, one of the few holdovers from the elegant days of Washington social gatherings, which put people of differing political persuasions together for the purpose of getting things done, leads an annual foreign tour with congressional spouses. She told us of a conversation she had with the wife of a Republican senator who she says told her, “Oh, Esther, I’m so glad you invited me on this trip, otherwise I might never have met a Democrat.”

The story is a shocking example of the disappearance of civility, conviviality and bipartisanship that used to dominate politics in Washington, even during times of controversy and war. It is difficult to hate someone whose spouse you know and whose children or grandchildren go to school with your own.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told us of foreign trips he takes with Republicans. He said when the plane takes off from Andrews Air Force Base, “We are no longer Republicans and Democrats, but Americans.” One wishes that whatever Hoyer and his colleagues encounter at 30,000 feet might be brought back to earth and spread around on Capitol Hill.

Most members of Congress with whom we spoke hate the system of constant fund-raising, separation from families and the often nonexistent relationships with their colleagues, who may wear a different label, but are still fellow Americans. They feel trapped, but don’t know the way out. Consider what happened to Sen. Joseph Lieberman after President Bush was seen embracing him following a State of the Union Address. To listen to the polarizers, one might think Lieberman was Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus with a kiss. Lieberman is a rarity. He survived a vicious attack by polarizers, most of them from outside Connecticut. Most, however, do not survive. Most feel that to seek common ground with the opposition guarantees an early end to their political careers.

We disagree. We believe it doesn’t take many to demonstrate a better way, a way most in the middle — which is most of us — want to see. The elections of 1992, which tossed out Democrats from their 40-year hold on Congress, and 2006, which did the same to Republicans when the public saw them behaving like the Democrats they had criticized, proved that the public is on to the game. Public approval for the new Congress reached 18 percent last month. Though it has bounced back slightly, it’s still nothing for members to brag about. The public is paying attention. Crass partisanship and polarization are out and common ground is on its way in.

The wise politician who wants to survive and, more importantly, desires to do something that promotes the general welfare rather than the welfare of an individual or party, will find such an approach not only achieves that lofty goal, but promotes his (or her) own welfare, too.