In politics, there is an accepted script that follows a presidential election. With election-night optimism, the winning leader promises the American people he will reach out in a bipartisan fashion, work across the aisle and reject politics as usual.
President Obama has won reelection. Yet he still must win over the people who can help him govern effectively. To do so, he must translate the public words of bipartisanship into meaningful action in private negotiations with Republican leaders, so together they can break the partisan gridlock and address our fiscal challenges. That won’t be easy, but it can be done.
The president has taken an important first step by embracing his role as “Convener in Chief.” In doing so, he can build personal bonds with and between members of Congress. When I was elected Senate majority leader in 1989, I promised then-minority leader Bob Dole that I would never surprise him or criticize him, in public or in private. He responded in kind. We debated vigorously but kept it civil, and we compromised. It meant we didn’t always get 100 percent of what we fought for, but everyone took a step forward. It’s easier, after all, to solve problems with people you know and like.
But the patterns that historically enabled friendships and legislative partnerships are mostly absent in the current routines of Washington life. Gone are the days of senators from opposing parties having dinner together, as Bob Dole and I regularly did. Or working together on outside projects, as Bill Cohen and I did when we coauthored a book on the Iran-contra scandal. Now, many members of Congress sleep in their offices, fearful that setting down even temporary roots in the nation’s capital will somehow tarnish their reputation at home.
Moreover, when members are in D.C., fundraising pressure often takes precedence over everything else, including engagement with colleagues. As majority leader, when I came to work each morning I was greeted by several messages from senators asking that votes not be held at various times during the day because they conflicted with fundraisers. Exaggerating to make a point, I once said that if I acceded to all such requests we could only vote on Thursdays between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. And the money chase is far more frantic now that it was two decades ago. The White House and congressional leaders must do more to build not just financial capital, but the social capital that that helps develop and enact legislation.
Of course, in the cynical environment of today’s national politics, such remembrances of a bygone Washington will sound to some like wistful nostalgia. Today, unfortunately, many doubt the sincerity of any political leader who appears to make an effort out of national duty and mutual respect.
But that is why, in addition to encouraging more personal relationships, the president should remain realistic in setting near-term goals. In the roughly 20 working days between now and the end of the year, there is no realistic possibility of negotiating, drafting and adopting the necessary $4 trillion dollar “grand bargain.” Instead of setting an unrealistic bar that ensures further disillusion, the president has rightly suggested incremental steps that, if taken, can build trust and make possible more and bigger steps.
Of course, fostering more personal relationships and being more realistic about outcomes can look like the sort of compromise that has become a dirty word to some in gridlocked Washington. This needs to change. The president should emphatically reject the notion that collaboration requires either side to capitulate and abandon its fundamental principles. It was a hard-fought, substantive election, and the president has an obligation to pursue the core ideas on which he campaigned and was elected. In my experience, hard-fought progress is usually achieved when leaders stand firm on principle but, recognizing that the national interest comes first, are flexible enough to find the common ground to move forward.
Since the election, we’ve heard talk already from both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner about forging bipartisan agreements and doing what’s best for the country. Each has expressed support for principled collaboration and agreed to get to work on the details. With so much riding on their success, we must encourage both to carry those public words and attitudes into their private negotiations.
On Leadership invited former senators George J. Mitchell and Trent Lott to reflect on the challenge of bipartisanship, from either side of the aisle. Mitchell is a former Democratic senator from Maine and was the Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995. He is the co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Read Sen. Trent Lott’s piece: