Civility in politics? Don't expect it soon
Is there any way to restore civility and a spirit to compromise in Washington, D.C.? Alas, not soon, was the consensus of an all-star cast addressing the topic Tuesday night at the Washington National Cathedral.
Senate Chaplain Barry Black, top White House adviser David Axelrod, former White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer and presidential historian Michael Beschloss agreed that the tone of politics is "coarse," "strident" and "polarized."
Under the gothic cathedral's vaulted apse, there was a lot of analysis of the problem, agreement and lamentation that the climate is getting worse, but precious little in the way of solutions except to hope that the public eventually demands that it change.
Collins, one of the Senate's most moderate and consensus-prone Republicans, summed up the situation by saying, "Politics as the art of compromise is woefully out of fashion.
"Sitting with those with opposing views, negotiating in good faith and attempting to reach solutions is often vilified by hard-liners on both sides of the aisle.
"Reaching solutions is not the goal for many today. Rath-er, it's to draw sharp distinc-tions and score partisan poli-tical points, even if that means that problems confronting our country go unsolved.
"Perhaps," she said, "that's why the public is so dissatisfied and angry with incumbents of all political persuasions, especially those in charge."
Actually, the latest Washington Post/ABC poll shows voters approve of Democrats in Congress slightly more than Republicans, 36 percent to 30 percent.
But they still favor the GOP over Democrats in the elections, 49 percent to 43 percent. And they are unhappy with the way the federal government works by 71 percent to 29 percent, with 46 percent saying they are merely "dissatisfied," while 25 percent are "angry."
Schieffer, moderating the Axelrod-Bolten panel, said he had been covering Washington for 41 years and "a meanness has settled in our politics lately that's worse than I've experienced."
Black said there's more civility in the Senate than people realize, but he cited as examples only the 20 to 25 senators who gather weekly for prayer breakfasts, nine or 10 who do Bible study and big attendance at senatorial funerals.
"I've found that lawmakers reflect what's going on off the Hill," he said. "If there's vituperation off the Hill, the lawmakers indulge in polarizing behavior."
The two White House officials observed that Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush entered office promising to bridge partisan differences, but they did not succeed.
Bolten blamed the contested 2000 election. Axelrod blamed Republicans, contending they decided to oppose Obama's policies regardless of his efforts to negotiate with them or even adopt some of their proposals, such as tax cuts.
After the November elections, "there will be a lot more Republicans in Congress," Axelrod conceded. But he contended they would not control either chamber, and he said, "We'll make every effort to work with who is there."
He said there are two schools of thought about politics in the next Congress. One is that progress can be made because governing responsibility will be shared.
But, he noted, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., leader of conservatives in the Senate, has served notice (in Business Week) that he favors "complete gridlock."
Collins also implicitly criticized DeMint for violating President Ronald Reagan's famous "11th Commandment," "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."
Sitting senators once refused to campaign against one another, even across party lines, she said. Nowadays, they do so routinely. And lately, she noted, "Some members campaign against incumbent senators in their own caucus by endorsing their primary opponents.
"The personal attacks in campaigns have detrimental effects that last long after Election Day. It is difficult to consider someone a colleague and potential legislative partner who has traveled to one's home state to criticize one's work."
In contrast to Axelrod blam-ing Republicans for congres-sional dysfunction, Collins blamed Democratic leaders.
"During the past two years, the minority party has been increasingly shut out of the discussion. Even in the Sen-ate, which used to pride itself on being the bastion of free and open debate, procedural tactics are routinely used to prevent Republican amend-ments.
"That, in turn, causes Rep-ublicans to overuse the filibus-ter because our only option is to stop a bill to which we cannot offer amendments."
She opined that civility might improve with divided government, in which "the president has no choice but to reach out and negotiate.
"It would be a lot easier for President Obama to resist the hard left of his party if he could say he has to pursue legislation acceptable to a Republican House or Senate. Or better yet, both."
Maybe. But, as virtually all the participants noted, ideological cable news networks and bloggers are in business to heighten contradictions, not bridge them, and increasingly voters get their information strictly from an outlet that ratifies their pre-existing prejudices.
Beschloss suggested limiting the influence of money in politics might help because it's raised by demonizing the opposition. But he acknowledged that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision renders that solution unlikely.
I actually thought the participants underplayed the dire consequences that could befall the country if the partisan divide isn't closed soon.
A polarized political system's continuing failure to deal with the national debt, rebuild crumbling infrastructure, restore economic growth and reform education will render the United States second-rate in the world and diminish the U.S. standard of living, exacerbating social tensions.
"A return to civility and a spirit of compromise must be driven by the voters and is not inevitable," Collins said.
"I believe in the maxim that what gets rewarded gets done, and for those of us in Congress, re-election is the ultimate reward.
"Voting out of office, or not electing in the first place, those who put partisanship over progress, stridency over statesmanship and conflict over compromise will produce a very different climate."
But that is not happening. The Washington Post poll showed that a near-majority of voters (43 percent) consider themselves political moderates, compared with 34 percent conservative and 21 percent liberal.
Yet liberals control the Democratic Party and conservatives control the GOP. And, it seems, the twain shall never meet.
Schieffer observed that they do meet on occasions of crisis -- after 9/11, to pass a defense bill and, in the face of impend- 77ing financial collapse, the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
But, right now, polarization is abetting a slow, steady deterioration of America's economic strength. When it reaches a crisis point, it may be too late.
Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.