When 75 percent of the nation disapproves of the job that Congress is doing, and when that disapproval rains on both Republicans (60 percent) and Democrats (53 percent), then restoring the public's faith in Congress will be more than a matter of rearranging the desk chairs in November.
You know that, I know that, and so does a group of more than 130 former members of Congress from both parties. In a plea for a change in "rhetoric and tone," these ex-lawmakers have written a letter to all House and Senate members running for reelection -- and to their opponents. The ex-es, well-known and lesser-known, ask nothing more than a change of heart in this campaign season and thereafter.
I remember a remarkable change of tone in the midst of another explosive election. It was shortly after the November 2000 presidential election. The Gore-Bush race had not yet been resolved, and the White House was celebrating its 200th birthday. Four presidents, five first ladies, and a host of guests from both parties were to participate in East Room festivities. As the Monitor's White House reporter, I wondered just how tense the room would get.
But instead of tension, the presidents – two Republicans and two Democrats – bathed the evening with a healing balm. Bill Clinton pointed guests away from persons to "our enduring Constitution and laws. " George H. W. Bush praised the "continuum of service that sets our nation and this building apart." Gerald Ford, speaking from experience, quipped quite happily that there is life after losing a close election. Indeed, he and rival Jimmy Carter became good friends afterward.
In their letter to today's congressional candidates, the former members of Congress don't deny party, and they don't deny partisan positions. "Parties are the way we organize to debate our differences," they write.
But "Congress appears to have been gripped by zero-sum game partisanship. The goal seems to be more to devastate the other side (the enemy, no longer the honorable adversary) than to find common ground to solve problems, much less to have a spirited but civil debate about how to do so."
The members call today's congressional debate "divisive and mean-spirited." Rather than being shamed, lawmakers who far exceed the bounds of respectful discourse "are lionized, treated as celebrities, rewarded with cable television appearances, and enlisted as magnets for campaign fund-raisers."
But you can't solve America's many big problems by division. The country is "ultimately a centrist nation," as the lawmakers say. It will take compromises from both parties to come to the middle on tough issues like the debt, education, climate, energy, immigration and a host of other challenges.
The lawmakers don't offer policy prescriptions, and they don't have to. Change of this sort begins with an adjustment of attitude, and that lies entirely within the control of an individual.
Which is why the ex-es appeal to all those running for Congress this year to "conduct campaigns ... with decency and respect toward opponents, to be truthful in presenting information about self and opponents, to engage in good faith debate about the issues and each other's record, to refrain from personal attack, and if elected, to behave in office according to these principles."
A guide for Congress, and for the rest of us, too.