After the midterm elections, who will drive bipartisanship?
That question was raised at a 'meetup' of Monitor writers and readers last week. The answers were surprising.
After the polarizing campaigning of the November midterm elections will come the need to actually govern. When a new Congress takes its seats, who should be responsible for bridging the partisan divide in Washington?
Big problems face the United States, from enervating joblessness to a mountain of federal debt. As the country is seeing with conservative candidates who pledge to repeal “Obamacare” or to strip it of funds, solving big problems – like health care – is best done with backing from both parties.
But the two sides will have to be on civil speaking terms if they hope to reach common ground. Whose job is it to make that happen?
Two years ago, President Obama promised to change the political tone in Washington. Shouldn’t the onus be on him to follow through on that promise – especially if predictions of a divided Congress come true?
Pennsylvania Avenue, however, is a two-way street, literally and figuratively. Don’t congressional leaders also bear responsibility?
And what about the media, that feed on conflict? Or Americans themselves – the mostly silent middle that lacks the activist twitch that energizes the fringes on the left (2008) and right (2010)?
Participants in the Monitor meetup checked all of the above, effectively putting the responsibility for bridge building on just about everyone’s shoulders.
One reader expressed hope that Republican John Boehner, who could very well become the next House speaker, would forge political consensus. Last summer, Representative Boehner burnished his bipartisan credentials at a Monitor breakfast with reporters, touting his work on the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 – perhaps the last big piece of jointly backed legislation to emerge from Congress.
But in September, when it was widely perceived in the media that he had hinted at a compromise with Mr. Obama on taxes, he was slapped down by the right, including by tea party followers.
It could well be that the left and right box in Boehner and the president, and keep political leaders squared off rather than squarely facing the issues together.
Another reader urged the media to stop moving like a herd toward sensational and divisive stories meant to maximize clicks on the Internet. “If you have good content, we will come,” he seemed to be saying.
A third reader pointed to Americans themselves, urging centrist, grass-roots activism that matches the energy of a Glenn Beck rally. Middlers, unite! It’s incumbent on individuals to speak with civility, to work through issues with respect, she said.
An example of that occurred Monday night at the library in Greenwich, Conn. A grass-roots group, The Common Ground Committee, hosted a provocative discussion about the role of government in the nation’s economy.
Monitor editor John Yemma moderated a panel that included former Republican Congressman Chris Shays, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Steve Moore, and economist Mark Zandi. The panel systematically searched for areas of agreement with about 150 people.
This is hardly the only such effort in America. Internet-driven groups such as Nolabels.org and mainstay organizations such as the League of Women Voters also bring people of different stripes together for respectful dialogue.
But it’s hard work. And sometimes dull. If finding common ground is everyone’s responsibility, it can easily turn into no one’s. And getting all riled up, whether you’re a journalist, a politician, or a passionate voter, can be so much more entertaining – and easier, frankly – than the patient work and self-control required for serious problem solving.
On the other hand, what’s the alternative? All of us must step up as citizens who are willing to search for areas of agreement rather than an arena for political combat.