Remember, we used to work together

By Tom Daschle
Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tom Daschle, a former senator from South Dakota, is a senior policy adviser to the law firm DLA Piper. He is the author of "Getting It Done: How Obama and Congress Finally Broke the Stalemate to Make Way for Health Care Reform."

n the night I lost my Senate reelection race in 2004, I thought about a quote that my friend, former senator Max Cleland of Georgia, often used to reflect on life's setbacks. "The world breaks everyone," Ernest Hemingway wrote, "and afterward, many are strong in the broken places."

I had enjoyed some lucky breaks throughout my political career, but that evening, my luck ran out. As the last returns came in, I realized that I could not make up my 4,000-vote deficit. In the middle of the night, I picked up the phone and called my opponent, John Thune, to congratulate him on his victory.

It was the only time in my life I had to make such a call. I felt that the world had broken me, too.

I imagine that some former Democratic colleagues of mine who lost their seats in Tuesday's midterm elections are feeling much as I did six years ago. In the House, our party has been swept out of power. And the Democrats who did win - along with those in the Senate who weren't up for reelection - will be part of smaller caucuses next year. They are all facing the challenge of divided government.

So far, the president and congressional leaders from both parties have been pledging to find ways to work together. They're mostly saying the right things. President Obama has invited the congressional leaders from both parties - Republicans Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, and Democrats Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi - to the White House for a meeting next week. He said it will be more than a photo op - it will be a chance to begin working jointly on the problems facing our nation.

I am counting on their success, even though I know that divided government can be difficult, complicated and frustrating. Sometimes it feels like you're running into brick walls all day.

But there are ways it can work, and you don't need to go too far back in time to find them. In my 26 years in public life, and in my decade as either minority or majority leader of the Senate, I saw how we were able to make things happen. So here are some lessons for both parties, but especially for Democrats, who are looking for ways to dust themselves off and get back to work.

Sometimes it takes an anthrax attack - but it shouldn't.

In the 10 years that I served as a party leader in the Senate, I dealt with three severe crises: the impeachment of a president, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax attack on my office merely a month later.

During all three, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats were thrown together in closed rooms to work through rattled nerves and prove to the world that our government would go on. And in each instance, we overcame our differences.

On the impeachment, we were battling enormous disagreements, but we were determined to adopt Senate procedures that were fair and reflected the gravity of the moment. At one point, during a meeting in the historic Old Senate Chamber, it was Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) - not exactly ideological soul mates - who offered a procedural compromise that provided a breakthrough in preventing a constitutional crisis.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I stood on the east steps of the Capitol late in the day, shoulder to shoulder with my political adversaries, as an eerie silence replaced the chaos of the day. We declared that afternoon that we were no longer Democrats or Republicans, but Americans, and I announced that Congress would continue its business as usual on Sept. 12. And then, spontaneously, we began singing "God Bless America." I doubt that those who were there will ever forget it.

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