Elmo's solution to the budget crisis: Play dates

A bipartisan solution to the budget problem will require basic listening and engagement–the same things required for children to play well together

Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop/AP/File
This image released by Sesame Workshop shows the character Elmo from the children's television show "Sesame Street." Earlier in the year, Elmo appeared on CNN and suggested that Democrats and Republicans learn to play together before tackling big problems like the budget crisis.

Back in October, CNN’s Erin Burnett interviewed Sesame Street’s Elmo, getting his advice on how Congress might actually stop bickering and get their work done. (CNN replayed this interview recently following the super committee’s disappointing failure.) From the CNN transcript of the original airing:

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, CNN’S “ERIN BURNETT’S OUTFRONT”: Elmo, you could solve the world’s problem right now.

ELMO: Really? How?

BURNETT: OK. So, in Washington –

ELMO: Yes?

BURNETT: — everybody hates each other. Nobody will do anything together.

ELMO: Really?

BURNETT: And it’s hurting America. How do you fix it, Elmo?

ELMO: Play dates.

BURNETT: Play dates?

ELMO: Yes, everybody has play dates.

BURNETT: Like put a Democrat and Republican play date?

ELMO: Play dates.

BURNETT: Harry Reid, John Boehner, play dates?

ELMO: Yes, play dates. And everybody brings their own food.


ELMO: And they have to sing songs.

BURNETT: I think that might solve it. It’s better than anything we tried so far, Elmo.

This reminds me of the Concord Coalition’s new “Two by Two” initiative, where–as Bob Bixby explained, also back in October (anticipating, like Elmo, that the super committee in the end would not play so well together):

Just as they did for the State of the Union Address, members of Congress should pair up. They should join together in “two-by-two” fiscal forums in which they present agreed-upon facts and engage with each others’ constituents about policy options. Public engagement is of little value if it just means listening to people who already agree with you…

Any number of formats could work so long as the goal is to broaden understanding of the issues and seek consensus solutions – and not to score a partisan “victory.”

A good example was set earlier this year by Senators Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who held joint forums in Richmond and Atlanta. And this is just one model. Over the past six years, The Concord Coalition has brought together analysts and political leaders of diverse perspectives on our “Fiscal Wake-Up” and “Fiscal Solutions” tours.

Audiences across the country have been very receptive. They often express the wish that their political leaders would talk about the issues with the same appreciation of each other’s point of view. More importantly, audience members begin to accept the need for compromise.

The public is hungry for a nonpartisan dialogue on such big issues as the long-term fiscal challenges, and elected leaders need political cover to “do the right thing.” Two-by-two forums fit both needs. Indeed, if President Obama and Speaker Boehner had made their case for a “grand bargain” to the American people instead of vetting it with other party leaders, they surely would have found a more receptive audience.

In other words, playdates with “parallel playing” are not enough. You have to communicate and engage with your playmate–find out what toys and games he likes and what he does not, reconcile those preferences with yours, and find ways to play together that make both of you happy. As all parents and preschool teachers know, moving on from the parallel playing mode takes some maturity–getting beyond the “terrible twos” actually. We’ve been talking about the need for “adult conversation,” but maybe we can set the bar even lower for starters and just try to get past the temper tantrums!

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