Some political heavyweights from yesteryear say what’s most needed to tackle the country’s vexing issues and restore public confidence in Congress is leadership.
The kind that puts problem-solving ahead of achieving short-term political and ideological objectives. The kind that calls for holing up in a room together and not leaving until there’s a solution that can sell to the legislative troops and to the public. And the kind that sees compromise as a strength, not a weakness.
“It’s going to take some statesmanship,” says former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. “The leaders on each side of the aisle need to sit down and bare their souls and say, ‘We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do something. Let’s start with A, and we may end up with B. But we’ve got to start somewhere or the people are going to be more upset with us than they are now.’ ”
That public disapproval comes as Congress is so polarized and paralyzed that it’s doing little about issues – including spiraling debt and stagnant wages – that threaten American families. To be sure, the country itself is more divided, and many national problems have grown more intractable. But some say the basics – including leadership that brings people together – can still be as powerful as ever.
Republican Dole, now 89, may have engaged in a little gridlock from time to time during his 35 years in Congress. But he was more famous, especially during his years as the Senate’s Republican leader, as a practitioner of the now-neglected art of hashing out a compromise behind closed doors.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a moderate who is leaving the upper chamber out of frustration with Congress’ inaction on the country’s big issues, recently told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that Dole’s mantra was always “work it out.”
Dole says he doesn’t want to be critical, but he also has some blunt advice for his party, whose current Senate leader – Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. – has helped block many of the president’s nominations and proposals and was quoted in 2010 as saying that “the single most important thing” the GOP wanted to accomplish was to make Democrat Barack Obama “a one-term president.”
“As a (Republican) party, we’ve got to get closer to the people,” Dole says. “When the party keeps voting ‘No’ or doesn’t let things come to a vote … in most cases, there can be a compromise and a vote.”
Dole added that Obama should lead and not leave it to the House (controlled by the GOP) and the Senate (controlled by the Democrats) to come up with specific proposals.
Former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, his wife, also emphasized the importance of working with Democrats, as she did during her years as secretary of transportation, secretary of labor and GOP senator from her native North Carolina.
In 1984, while heading the DOT in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, she worked with Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey to get the national drinking age set at 21 – a case, she says, of “putting safety above politics.”
“The way that we were able to get big initiatives accomplished was always working across the aisle,” she says. “And these were issues every bit as tough as what’s going on today. But there was not the hatefulness then, not the name-calling and character assassination.”
Two top Democrats from the Carolinas agree that a renewed commitment to bipartisanship is the only real way forward. Both former U.S. Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles say they have seen the fruits of Democrats and Republicans working together.
As ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee in the 1990s, Spratt worked with the panel’s GOP chairman, John Kasich, now governor of Ohio, to craft a balanced budget in 1997. It eventually led to the first federal budget surpluses since 1969.
“John was a very partisan guy, and I’m pretty partisan, so we knew it would only be done with compromise on each side,” Spratt says. “You get together, roll up your sleeves, work on solutions and don’t talk about petty things.”
During his years in Washington, Spratt says he also kept a framed Washington Post on his wall. It pictured President Ronald Reagan with House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Sen. Claude Pepper, both Democrats. In the picture, they were all smiles as they celebrated their deal to extend the life of Social Security.
“It showed what bipartisanship can accomplish,” Spratt says.
The template for any future bipartisan agreement – or “grand bargain,” in the current parlance – may well come from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
Or, as it’s better known, Simpson-Bowles – a reference to co-chairs Bowles of Charlotte and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.
Created in 2010 by President Barack Obama, the bipartisan panel met for a year to come up with a deficit reduction plan that called for both spending cuts and revenue increases.
It failed to win a supermajority – it got 11 of 18 commission votes; it needed 14 – and got swept up in election-year battles over Medicare cuts and tax increases.
But, Bowles says, a majority of the Democrats and Republicans on the commission did vote for it, including liberal Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
“We got great bipartisan support because we were able to build up real trust among the people who were there,” Bowles said. “When people walked into the room, (some had) never even met each other, they’d never had any discussions – much less a relationship of real trust.”
And now that the election is over, there’s been renewed interest in the plan, which could be the bridge that brings leaders together and thwarts fiscal disaster.
“Every day, somebody new embraces it,” Bowles said. “It’s not perfect. … But what it does is address all of the big problems that we face. Because the problems are real, the solutions are all politically painful – in fact, there’s no easy way out.”
Many politicians fear that voters aren’t ready to accept tax increases and changes in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security – among the proposals in Simpson-Bowles.
But Dianne English, who has a history of bringing people of different beliefs and backgrounds together at Charlotte’s Community Building Initiative, says leaders who ask for public sacrifice may just be surprised.
She says Americans could be hungry to do their part if they see statesmanship in their leaders.
English says the public should be included in any grand bargains those leaders negotiate.
“We’re willing to stake our careers on these beliefs and strategies,” she envisions the leaders telling voters. “And here’s what we need you to do, people of America.”
The Rev. Doug Tanner, senior adviser to the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington, says that, historically, national threats – such as the skyrocketing debt and the struggling economy – can usher in national unity.
“It takes some kind of crisis before there’s an incentive to come together,” he says. “And we’re in one.”