How to End the Gridlock

By Bob Graham
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

For much of the past two decades, Americans have watched in frustration as presidents and members of Congress have repeatedly achieved deadlock rather than consensus on issues that are critical to our nation. The results of this partisan traffic jam are frightening. For example:

• Almost seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, we still have huge gaps in national and homeland security. Our military is stretched thin and our nation remains vulnerable to catastrophic terrorism.

• Nearly 50 million Americans still have no health insurance, and the number of the uninsured rises every year.

• As evidenced by the bridge collapse in Minneapolis last August and the crumbling levees in New Orleans, we have recklessly neglected our infrastructure.

• Gas prices remain high, but we still have no real energy policy.

• Worst of all, we are betraying the fundamental American aspiration that future generations achieve more than those that came before. Seven of 10 Americans now believe that our children will be less well off than their parents.

Many factors have contributed to these ills, but the chief cause is the rampant partisanship that has paralyzed Washington. Early this month, I joined with former senator David Boren and 15 other experienced public officials from both parties to discuss prescriptions for overcoming the stalemate. Our primary focus was the presidential election. The next president will have a clean slate and the burst of enthusiasm that accompanies any new occupant of the White House. He or she has an opportunity -- and an obligation -- to attack the disease of partisan hostility and to set the tone during this election.

We suggested a few initial steps. Each presidential nominee should commit to appointing a truly bipartisan Cabinet that would include the most qualified people available, regardless of their party affiliation. Presidential candidates should be pressured to clearly describe how they would establish a government of national unity. Since results matter more than words, we would also press both major-party nominees to lay out specific strategies for reducing polarization and reaching bipartisan consensus on our agenda of national challenges.

The next president can't do it alone. If we are to break the cycle of partisan gridlock, others who have contributed to the disease must also help with the cure. To this end:

• Congress must restore and modernize the campaign finance reforms enacted after Watergate. Today, a presidential candidate accepts public financing at the risk of being discounted as weak and irrelevant.

• The media must insist that future presidential debates each focus on a single issue. Candidates can hide behind sound bites when a debate covers every and all subjects. But when candidates must spend a full 90 minutes discussing health care or national defense, voters will learn who is for real and who isn't.

• Political parties must fundamentally reform the dysfunctional presidential primary system. We need a better process in 2012 -- one that empowers all Americans. My preference would be four regional primaries, held at three- to four-week intervals from January to April.

• Our citizens must be educated to use their powers for effective participation in the political process. Democracy was never intended to be a spectator sport.

History tells us that bipartisanship is possible. In the 40 years after World War II, nine presidents -- four Democrats and five Republicans -- worked side by side with Congresses of both parties to contain the Soviet Union and strengthen the free world. We can resurrect that healthy condition, but it starts with cutting out the cancer of hostile partisanship. It's time to use the knife not to injure political opponents but to cure.

Bob Graham, a Democrat, was a U.S. senator from Florida from 1987 to 2005. He is an associate of the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and leads the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida and the University of Miami.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company