To make political progress, the U.S. should follow Britain's path

By Bill Knapp
Friday, June 11, 2010

Imagine a highly polarized political system saddled with entrenched parties, acrimonious policy disagreements and an unhappy public. What we have in the United States? Yes. In Britain? Yes -- until a recent election put in power a new coalition government. Much of America's democracy is built on our heritage with England; perhaps we should look across the Atlantic to figure out how to fix our broken politics.

That effort should start by understanding what happened in last month's British election. The new Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition is not the result of a quirky parliamentary system that allows such compromise; in fact, Britain's rule-by-parliamentary-majority system makes compromise unnecessary and virtually impossible. Contrary to a lot of pre-election predictions, unhappy and angry British voters did not dictate this change. The muddled result -- less than 30 percent support for the ruling Labor Party; the Conservatives' failure to win a mandate -- gave the supposedly surging Liberal Democrats only 1 percent more of the vote than they received in the previous general election. The Lib Dems actually lost five seats in Parliament; that's hardly a "change" election.

The fundamental difference comes down to leadership: Conservative Party head (now prime minister) David Cameron and his politically and policy-smart finance minister, George Osborne, and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg saw what was possible and decided to gamble their political futures on a chance for Britain's success.

Plenty of Conservative and Liberal Democrat party activists are unhappy about policy positions and initiatives that were compromised away. But their respective leaders did something that has become unique: They led. They forced change on their rank and file by finding common ground among themselves. Clegg and the Lib Dem manifesto opposed immediate budget cuts. Cameron campaigned on a promise to reduce the inheritance tax and in the final debate strongly defended his policy. In their coalition, both have abandoned these positions -- and many others.

This is not the easy compromise of abandoning principles for the sake of gaining power. This was calculated decision-making: taking on the hard work of using policy solutions to define a new governing majority that in their view would lead to a stronger future for Britain.

It seems like a distant dream to think a new governing paradigm could happen here in America, but it can -- if three conditions are met:

First, leaders need to overtly take on the divisive parts of their party. This should not be done in a vindictive or mean-spirited way; most of those on the extremes are sincere in their beliefs. But they should not be allowed to be the tail that wags the dog. Our democracy has lost its center in part because leaders have become cowed by blog posts, Internet petition drives and fear of 30-second attack ads.

The first condition of real reform is to find leaders who are independent and tough enough to stand up to the politics of the extreme. There are glimmers of hope in President Obama's tough stand for education reform, where he has taken on the teachers unions; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) showed similar resolve, at least until he abandoned it, when he was working to find a compromise on climate legislation. These are small examples of leadership, but they indicate what is possible.

The second condition comes in setting priorities. Not everything is important, even if it is a cherished goal. For political and substantive reasons, some issues will be more important than others. Clegg really believes in the euro and wants Britain to adopt the currency; he knows that is not possible now and certainly not a priority. It's a position he has willingly abandoned, for now. The point is not to throw beliefs overboard or to embrace policies even if they are bad politics. No coalition built on just doing the right thing will work. The point is for leaders to set priorities and then ruthlessly pursue them for political and substantive advantage.

The final condition -- the most difficult to achieve -- is measured impatience. Success requires bold steps, done quickly, explained thoroughly (because voters are impatient) and then held on to even as times get tough (that's the measured part). If leadership governs only by tabloid coverage or polling, nothing will ever get done. The challenge is not to pander to the tabloids and understand the public's mind-set via polling, but to use both to achieve your ends.

It's naive to expect Democrats and Republicans to just "get along." Those who are nostalgic for the days when Senate colleagues were more civil miss the point -- civility doesn't mean progress any more than confrontation does. The real need in our politics today is leadership in a most basic form: to shoulder the responsibility of finding a common path and then steering the nation down it. As Winston Churchill said, "The price of greatness is responsibility." More than anything, we need some greatness.

The writer, a partner with the communications firm SKD Knickerbocker, served as a senior media strategist to five Democratic U.S. presidential campaigns. He advised Conservative leader David Cameron in Britain's recent election.

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