"Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer."
John F. Kennedy spoke these words in 1958 regarding the political challenges faced in America. Kennedy called for following a path of compromise -- to move the nation forward by seeking common ground between opposing interests.Over 56 years later, America is clearly off this path; partisan divisiveness once again is the rule. However, I expect Kennedy would have been proud that the Bipartisan Policy Center chose his presidential library to hold an event to work toward a solution.
The group hosted A Conversation on American Unity on Wednesday, March 26, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) was founded in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George Mitchell. The BPC hosts events such as its "bridge-builders breakfasts,” political summits, and policy discussions. Its objectives include bringing people together and fostering civil conversations to overcome partisan divisions in government.
A key BPC initiative is its Commission on Political Reform (CPR). Launched in March 2013, the CPR was created to tackle the challenges facing America today, and to explore specific reforms to improve the political process. As part of its fact-finding mission, the CPR is engaging the public in a series of discussions at presidential libraries, universities, and other public institutions around the country.
Several areas have been targeted as opportunities for bipartisan reform:
- Electoral Reform
- Congressional Reform
- Public Service
- Public Engagement and Social Media
A companion BPC effort, Citizens for Political Reform, is a platform for educating the public about implementing their recommendations and how people can make a difference. In an interview I conducted with Senator Snowe earlier this month, she described the purpose of the "citizens" movement:
"If we can also channel social media, if we can get millions of Americans as engaged as we are, we can not only hold our elected officials accountable, but give them the political strength to go to their leaders and demand that we work together to forge solutions."
In a press release just prior to the Boston event, former secretary of agriculture, Dan Glickman, said he believes "Americans would be more supportive of Congress if it focuses on reforms that allow it to function more effectively within the polarized atmosphere.""Our commission is looking at practical solutions that can restore Americans’ trust in Congress and the administration to rise together and meet our biggest challenges," former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott added.
The results of a recently released BPC/USA TODAY national poll showed that Americans are firmly in support of "getting results," "solving problems," and "working across party lines."
At the BPC event, two panel discussions were conducted. In an introduction by Vicky Kennedy, she spoke of her husband, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and his belief that the future of America depends on understanding the importance of tapping into and inspiring civic engagement.
The first session, "The White House and Congress: How to Get Things Done," was moderated by Trey Grayson, director of the Harvard University Institute of Politics. An impressive array of panel members included:
- Josh Bolten, former White House chief of staff
- Andy Card, former White House chief of staff
- Dan Glickman, former U.S. secretary of agriculture
- Trent Lott, former Senate majority leader
- John H. Sununu, former White House chief of staff
The participants shared their views on presidential appointees and the nomination process. All seemed to agree that the president deserves the benefit of the doubt on nominees, barring any deep reservations about qualifications or deep philosophical differences. Andy Card summed this up by saying that the president should be given the team he or she needs to do their job. They also discussed specific reforms to reduce the divisions on appointees, one being a reduction in the number of positions which require confirmation hearings.
Much of the focus was on the relationship between the White House and Congress. Several panel members urged a greater degree of communication.
Senator Lott noted that it is “critical that presidents reach out to Congress.” Others reflected on the point that when communication deteriorated, so did the success of these relationships.
Lott, not a centrist himself, admitted that solutions today are in the middle, and communication between the White House and Congress, as well as the public, are critical to finding the answers. John Sununu agreed that the role of citizens was also important in this process, and added that difficult decisions need to be rewarded, not penalized, at the ballot box.
“Why should the right decisions be so hard?” He asked.
The second panel, "A National Conversation on American Unity," was moderated by Susan Page of USA TODAY and took questions from the audience and Twitter. Included on the panel were congressional notables:
- Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator (R-UT)
- Henry Bonilla, former U.S. representative (R-TX)
- Rev. Floyd H. Flake, former U.S. representative (D-NY)
- Charles Gonzalez, former U.S. representative (D-TX)
- Victoria Kennedy, co-founder, Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate
- Olympia Snowe, former U.S. senator (R-ME)
Several possible areas of reform were discussed, including term limits, interaction between the executive and legislative branches, primary reform, and campaign finance reform. The panel once again focused considerably on communication and relationships between members of Congress and the president. Civility was a recurring theme.
“The way you talk to someone matters,” emphasized Bonilla.
He went on to say that America has too much “harshness” and that there is a need for ”we the people” to reflect upon itself to be part of the solution. Bennett placed some of the blame on the media, as well as the public, claiming that “the Internet has turned everyone into Walter Cronkite.”
There seemed to be considerable agreement regarding the president’s role in fostering bipartisanship relationships with Congress. Vicky Kennedy and Charles Gonzalez raised the point that some members of Congress have turned down invitations to meet with President Obama, and that the American people need to speak out against these acts of incivility. Gonzalez called the political environment where this can occur “poisoned.”The fine line between acceptable minority opposition versus obstructionism was also debated. Party-line votes and filibusters are not the answer, but there must be room for principled opposition, maintained Kennedy. Snowe added that it is the people who pay the price for these divisions.
Bennett cited the ratification of the Constitution as one of the most divisive fights in our history, but concluded that once defeated, even Patrick Henry saw the need to work within the system instead of today’s “let’s shut the system down” tactic.
When asked who in Congress today can fill the shoes of Ted Kennedy in restoring a bipartisan environment, Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) were suggested as good leadership choices. There seemed to be a consensus that inexperience among members was an issue in today’s Congress.
“Legislating takes time and knowledge,” offered Snowe.
The potential impact of the Millennial generation was commented on by Snowe and Reverend Flake. How younger people connect to one another and have already proven to become involved and engaged “may change the whole scope of politics as we know it today,” said Flake.
“They will learn not to take their cues from the current climate in Washington,” Snowe added.
The Commission on Political Reform expects to release its final recommendations on June 24, 2014, in a final event in Washington, D.C. The BPC plans to follow up with advocacy among federal, state, and local policymakers; business, religious, and civic leaders; and the American public.
"Our ability to be the beacon of hope to the world is at stake,” Glickman concluded.
In his inaugural address in January 1961, President Kennedy spoke of working together and putting differences aside to move America forward.
"Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."
The Bipartisan Policy Center has chosen this same path to combat congressional gridlock and dysfunction today. The JFK Library was an impressive and fitting backdrop.