Searching for common ground? Start with the Constitution.

Why We Wrote This

Amid widespread Democratic concerns about the country’s direction, former Senate staffer Janet Breslin is reaching out to local Republicans. Part 5 in a summer series on people who are facing – and successfully navigating – America’s most intractable challenges.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Janet Breslin, the new chairwoman of the Salem Democratic Committee in Salem, New Hampshire, leads a meeting at a local coffee shop with members as well as representatives of several presidential campaigns on June 28, 2019.

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There’s something about living through a coup in Chile and under absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia that makes one appreciate America’s unique system of government. Just ask Janet Breslin, a former national security professor at the National War College with more than a decade of experience working in Congress.

As she dives into grassroots politics for the first time, she sees a need for the country to come together and recognize one another’s humanity. And she sees the Constitution – rather than any one personality or party – as the key to unifying the country and promoting a culture of compromise, even if it takes longer and requires more patience.

“My hope for the country lies in my love for the Constitution, the most amazing governing blueprint for this unique nation of ours,” she says. “If we can come back to it, to honor its intent, we will begin to truly listen to each other and find that political ‘center of gravity’ which keeps our country stable and just.”

Donald Trump won more votes here in Salem than in any other New Hampshire town, which makes Janet Breslin’s job especially challenging – but also exciting.

She’s the new chair of the Salem Democratic Town Committee, marshaling the troops in a corner of a local coffee shop on a recent summer morning. They are outgrowing this corner, their ranks having swelled with representatives from some of the two dozen campaigns building up their teams in New Hampshire, which hosts the first-in-the-nation primary.

As they go around the room for campaign updates, a young woman shares that Tulsi Gabbard is coming the following week. Dr. Breslin wants to know if she has a printed flyer for the event. No, the young woman responds, but it will be up on Facebook and the campaign’s website.

“The only reason I’m saying printed, in this one case, … is [a local man who is] a solid Republican told me once there’s a couple candidates he’d like to see,” including Ms. Gabbard, says Dr. Breslin, providing the voter’s name and the location of his business so the woman could pay him a visit. Some Republicans, she adds, feel abandoned or orphaned. She encourages attendees to make personal contact with their conservative neighbors.

As Dr. Breslin – a former congressional staffer and national security professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C. – dives into grassroots politics for the first time, she sees a need for the country to come together and recognize one other’s humanity. And she sees the Constitution – rather than any one personality or political party – as the key to unifying the country.

“My hope for the country lies in my love for the Constitution, the most amazing governing blueprint for this unique nation of ours,” she says. “If we can come back to it, to honor its intent, we will begin to truly listen to each other and find that political ‘center of gravity’ which keeps our country stable and just.”

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Janet Breslin spent many a day sitting here looking out over the lake behind her Salem, New Hampshire, home after a tense five years when her husband served as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Her experiences living abroad heightened her appreciation for America’s system of government.

From a Chilean coup to ambassador’s residence in Saudi

Having lived in Chile and Saudi Arabia, and experienced firsthand the impact of undemocratic governance, she has a deep appreciation of the uniqueness of American government – however frustrating or slow or painful it may be.

Dr. Breslin, whose Ph.D. is in political science, sees the Constitution as carefully designed to acknowledge competing interests and ensure that all sides would be heard and considered, promoting a culture of compromise and coming together.

“How the framers of the Constitution looked at the question of power is key to understanding their vision for America,” says Dr. Breslin, who is working on co-hosting a table about the Constitution with Republicans at a local festival this fall. “I feel very protective of wanting all of us to appreciate what the framers had in mind – how effective it’s been and why it’s worth protecting.”

She was living in Chile when the 1974 coup overthrew the democratically elected president, paving the way for the commander in chief of the army, Augusto Pinochet, to come to power. This, in a country that had a vibrant free press, a parliamentary system, three political parties, and a constitution.

“Then one night, liberty went away,” she says, recalling how in the months that followed Chilean friends began justifying things like torture because it was an “unusual” time.

Fast-forward 35 years, and she moved to Saudi Arabia with her husband, James B. Smith, whom President Barack Obama appointed ambassador. Here was an absolute monarchy, a country where citizens not only had never known democracy, but where, she observed, most didn’t even have the instinct to form a group to resolve an issue – such as a neighborhood getting together to put in a stoplight, or Salem’s Democratic committee planning an ice cream social that morning to raise money for the local Boys and Girls Club.

“That instinct didn’t exist there,” says Dr. Breslin. “Their response was, ‘Let’s wait and see what the king does.’”

“I think most Americans don’t realize how unique a system we have,” she says.

Problem-solving with patience

Dr. Breslin comes from Republican roots herself, but when she was in college John F. Kennedy inspired her to register as a Democrat. When she went to make the switch in her small California town, they asked her: Does your father know? Yes, he did, and he was good-natured about it.

As a Republican-turned-Democrat, she has long held the belief that representatives of both parties can find common ground. But back when she worked on Capitol Hill in the 1980s and early 1990s, reaching across the aisle happened far more frequently than it does today.

“We looked at politics as problem-solving,” says Ms. Breslin, citing as an example the 1985 bipartisan Gramm-Rudman budget bill designed to curb the national deficit. “What I worry about right now is this vilification of each other. ... It’s a change of focus from solving problems to really seeing the other as evil. And that to me seems un-American.”

To be sure, she knows how frustrating it can be to work within a system that, as she puts it, values process more than product. But she has come to see that as part of the beauty of America’s unique system.

“The whole time I worked on Capitol Hill I always imagined the framers of the Constitution looking at me,” she recalls. “And on those days that we were frustrated because we couldn’t get something done, they’d be smiling because they wanted it to take time.”

And so she has been patient with those she encounters who hold divergent viewpoints. Brenda Berkal, who attended the Democratic committee meeting and knows Dr. Breslin through her dental practice, recalls her poise when she gave a talk about Saudi Arabia and got a tough question from an audience member.

“It was just remarkable watching her sit down and talk with someone who I thought would be unreachable,” says Dr. Berkal. “I aspire to that someday. I hope she gets to go further than just Salem.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the college where Dr. Breslin taught.

Read the rest of the series here:

Part 1: Overcoming despair: How a wounded Green Beret came back stronger
Part 2: With compassion and faith, a mayor leads his city through the opioid crisis
Part 3: Amid tariffs and floods, a farmer finds hope in the next crop of Kansans
Part 4: Why America remains a beacon of hope for Liberian refugee
Part 5: Searching for common ground? Start with the Constitution.
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