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2013 Winter Issue 5 (February 15, 2013)

Compromise and Dysfunction in Washington: Thoughts on Convo

February 15, 2013
By Sam Feigenbaum

I found Convo disappointing. The speaker seemed particularly compelling. The posters in Sayles advertised: David Gergen, adviser to four presidents. And given the larger than usual Convo audience, lots of Carleton students thought along the same lines as me. This was one Convo to crawl out of bed for.

Gergen, however, gave a tired talk. He tasked himself with explaining why politics in Washington have grown so dysfunctional. This, in my eyes, was the high point of the Convo. The topic was pertinent and important. But then, Gergen, perhaps worn out from the lecture circuit (which he alluded to on numerous occasions), waded into a mush of name-dropping, joke telling, and political truisms.

First, he compared Steve Poskanzer to Mahatma Gandhi for their shared devotion to listening before acting. This may be one of the more ludicrous comparisons I have ever heard. Last time I checked our President, nice as he is, has yet to forswear material possessions or lead an independence movement.

Next, Gergen explained in some depth his relationship to Allen Simpson, former Wyoming Congressman and co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles debt commission. In case you didn’t know that, Gergen made sure to explain Simpson’s eminence; Gergen also ensured us all the awareness that he was good friend with Simpson. They both taught at Kennedy School of Government. And what an honor it was to hold a professorship at such an esteemed institution.

All this was forgivable though, even somewhat amusing. Gergen’s spoke with an easy, slightly Southern drawl. One of those accents that make you sit just a little more comfortably, content just to listen to the sound of words, more or less irrespective of their content.

At this point, Gergen was ready to diagnose the ills of Washington. The problem, you see, was that we’d lost our ability to compromise. We’d put party before country. What mattered now was the winning the next election cycle, not the betterment of America. If only we could rekindle that conciliatory spirit of years past. When Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill fought like hell during the day, then shared drinks in the evening. When Presidents were military men whose service taught them that America always came first. When America came together to solve big problems.

What a glossy history! Has Gergen forgotten that the Civil Rights agenda deeply divided the country, rendering the South off limits to most Democrats even today? Has Gergen forgotten that his first Presidential boss, Richard Nixon, came to office on the coattails of a Southern Strategy capitalizing on the racist fears of middle-class Southerners and left office declaring himself, as President, immune to the law?

Beyond that, I totally reject the notion that America’s problem is that public servants of today are wanting in patriotism. Unless I’ve got it very, very wrong, politicians become politicians because they want to work to better their country’s future. America still comes first. The problem is that our politicians, like us as American citizens, have deeply divided visions of America’s future. Institutions like Carleton may recoil in horror after a mass shooting like Newtown, but when the President calls even for modest gun control measures as a result, gun sales skyrocket across the nation. Compromise becomes difficult when politicians are so divided that they can find no common ground, no matter how patriotic they are on both sides of the aisle.

Before I totally put Gergen out to pasture, he did hit on at least one noteworthy point. Liberals have gotten more liberal and conservatives more conservative in recent years. Gergen suggests that this is because public servants now put party before country. I tend to think its because the country really is splitting in two politically.

The process by which we elect our public officials surely doesn’t help, though. In Presidential elections, primary season ensures that successful candidates must cater to the party faithful, rather than take a more moderate tack. And in Congress, partisan redistricting trickery in state capitals means that fewer and fewer seats are truly up for grabs. Most districts now bleed deep blue or deep red. Not surprisingly, the Congressmen elected to represent these districts hold views similar to those of their constituents. So if you want to see a more moderate Congress, I’d say take up the cause of non-partisan redistricting reform. Or get the parties to scrap the primary season. (Cue lots of shouting and screaming from Iowa and New Hampshire.)

Gergen, however, never mentioned redistricting reform. And while he bemoaned the nature of primary season, he didn’t offer any ideas as to changing it. Instead, he assured us that he was hopeful for America’s future because our generation took most seriously the call of service to our country (did you know how many kids applied to Teach for America?!) and so did the troops returning home.

I guess that’s that. If you want to see America return to greatness just wait for us to come of age. As Gergen sees it, we’ll take charge and all will be well. As seduced as I am by the notion that our generation possesses special restorative and transformative powers, I’m skeptical.

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