It Is Still Possible

Author: Gary Hart

Congressional deadlock, created by lock-step partisanship and an unprecedentedly rigid opposition party, has been extensively analyzed, with no apparent resolution.  In the midst of wide-spread citizen economic misery, many Americans have simply concluded that this is the way things are…and apparently always will be.  In Kurt Vonnegut’s memorable phrase: “…and so it goes.”

But this isn’t the way it has to be.  There is a better way to govern and that better way characterizes much, if not most, of American history.  It certainly characterized the Senate of the 1970s when Democrats and Republicans found common ground, called the national interest, and held themselves accountable for achieving it.  This better time was brought to mind this week when I had a unique opportunity to remember those times.

Esquire magazine convened a commission of two Republicans, Jack Danforth (Missouri) and Bob Packwood (Oregon), and two Democrats, Bill Bradley (New Jersey) and this writer.  We were challenged to balance the federal budget by 2020.  Our moderator was Lawrence O’Donnell, former Senate staff director and now of Morning Joe.  The results of this experiment will be available in the December issue of Esquire, out by mid-November.  I urge you to read the results.

We achieved a balanced budget within a decade, but we also creatively addressed stabilization of Social Security, controlled health care costs, dealt with long-delayed military reform, and addressed energy conservation and climate challenges.  Cynics will say: “That’s easy if you don’t have to seek re-election.”  But why should statesmanship be considered cynically?  We were able to achieve our goals because each of us put the interests of our nation ahead of ideology and party.  That is the way government used to work.  I know from personal experience.  And there is nothing, save rabid ideologues and selfish interest groups, to prevent it from working that way now.

It is now commonplace, including on this site, to attack “the government”, as if it were some distant entity none of us is responsible for.  But a majority of Americans elect their president and their members of Congress.  If they don’t achieve what we demand of them, perhaps we ought to get our mirrors out and ask ourselves whether we all might share some blame.

36 Responses to “It Is Still Possible”

  1. Pat Boice Says:

    What a great concept – working in the national interest! I do believe the voter anger at Congress is because of their exhibited intractability and seeming interest only in retaining their power! So often it seems the choice of candidates is so limited and our vote is simply the lesser of two “evils”. And how many voters are influenced by those in the media who constantly harangue about the evils of government. Very discouraging. Thanks for this blog – please keep it up.

  2. Debbie Lackowitz Says:

    Thank you Sir. I am definitely going to read the Esquire article when it comes out in mid-November to get the full results. However, what you have stated is true. Statesmanship should have nothing to do with election or re-election. Because events change over time. From the time of election to the present nothing remains static. Who could have predicted the economic meltdown? Well, yeah maybe we could have said it would happen, but when? I don’t think so. That’s just one example. What really matters is that members of Congress (except a few, and I MEAN that) just aren’t putting the national interest first. Republicans in lock stock (and some Democrats as well) literally have ground the wheels of government to a halt. To our detriment as a nation. To give President Obama credit, he HAS tried to reach across the aisle. To what? A slap actually. And no results. Why? One word. Money. Who determines our fate right now? Why the ‘masters of the universe’ of course. The ‘oligarchy’. We are literally back to where we were a century ago. Before Teddy Roosevelt stood up to the titans of power of the time. In fact, it just might be worse. Our Supreme Court just gave ‘corporations’ free speech with Citizens United. I had really hoped that Barack Obama might have been our TR. But alas, apparently it is not to be. I sure hope he/she is out there. Cause we definitely need someone with the courage to stand up to them. Someone NOT looking out for the next election , but for US.

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  4. Jeffrey Abelson Says:

    Like most, I am repulsed by the performance of our government. Unlike most, I don’t put all the blame on ideological politicians and partisanship. If they didn’t have to govern in a sea of citizen passivity, they wouldn’t be forced to cater to their extremes, who — although only a small percentage of the population — are the only ones paying attention and making their voices heard. Indeed, it’s time to turn the mirror around.

  5. Tomas Agee Says:

    My view, having worked in Washington in the great 60s, is that the partisan gridlock in our national government is due in large part to the “success” of the Reagan “revolution,” the major thesis of which was that the government, per se, is the problem. The only solution to this problem, in my view, is to once again have the kind of statesman-like leadership we had in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. Senator Hart is a prime example of the qualities we need, and I am looking forward to the Esquire article.

  6. Joshua Bennett Says:

    I love your ideas, in theory. In practice, bipartisanship requires both parties to actively engage in government. The GOP has had 8 years of pushing laws and debates to the right. Now their idea of compromise or “center-right” government closely resembles what would have been considered “far right” only a few decades ago. True progressive leadership cannot cooperate with a minority conservative ideology that only engages in compromise when it is able to hijack legislation to strip all meaningful progress and reform. The problem remains that most Republicans and “blue-dog” Democrats are more interested in getting re-elected than in protecting their constituency.

  7. andy Says:

    It’s easy to govern if everybody involved is interested in governing, as your example shows. It’s just too bad that the modern GOP is more interested in being in charge than in legislation.

    Does everyone still remember the sad spectacle of the Democrats standing on the Capitol steps and singing The Star Spangled Banner with the Republicans just after 9/11? They rallied ’round the flag- and gave the GOP the benefit of the doubt- and so the seeds of our present disaster were planted. Nine years later we have a shattered economy, we’re still involved in two ruinously expensive wars, Osama Bin Laden is still at large, and we all have a massive Security State looming over our lives.

    And what is our GOP doing in this time of trouble? Running the clock on legislation, and stabbing in the back the very people trying to pull us out of our collective misery. A rump minority of GOP legislators destroyed the state of California in just this way, and they’ve taken this winning strategy nationally and our doing the same to the American Dream.

    You want that old GOP back? Fine. Take away the filibusters and the secret holds and make them legislate in the open!

  8. Gary Hart Says:

    Two responses: to Mr. Abelson I’d say that no member of Congress is “forced to cater to their extremes.” They may choose to do so out of fear or desire for career, but as a matter of principle they should not. I do agree about vast citizen apathy and passivity.
    To andy: the “old GOP” I want back pre-dates 9.11 by a good deal. It was represented by moderate, thoughtful Republicans who, though conservative, generally put the national interest ahead of ideology and party. The two I mention here were in that group.

  9. Forest Book Says:

    “Two roads diverged in the wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost > This means in this context: Instead of marketing the magazine article; you and those involved have a moral responsibility to create the necessary digital and social media outlets; utilize your combined networks and share these methods of governance with your fellow citizens. > IF we as a nation are to end the marketed mistrust, the marketed “mine” culture and re-enforced by the option of select brand: A. The Hard Work of Engagement or B: Brand Easy: The most traveled. Then this is an ideal chance for citizens who chose reverential governance over the business as usual.

    “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes!” Maggie Kuhn

  10. J David Morris Says:

    I’m very disappointed that the details of the solutions won’t be out until mid-November – AFTER the election. We should be discussing those solutions now instead of having the debate dominated by the usual partisan hackery. What’s the point of keeping these ideas out of the national debate? Can someone please leak them to Wikileaks? Or some other organization that values democracy. The sooner the better.

  11. Tom Kroupa Says:

    I look forward to reading the Esquire article on this subject when it is released to the public. I do feel strongly that bi-partisanship is demonstrably linked to corporate influence (corruption) of politics. Statesmanship cannot exist as long as corporations “hire” politicians to do their bidding. How do corporations have such influence on policies which best suit their own profits at the expense of the good of our nation? Lobbyists descend on capitol hill and tell them that they will give money to their opponent, that they will broadcast a negative ad in their district if they don’t vote their way. Politicians need money to get reelected so they comply with their wishes as if an boss told an employee to get coffee. Otherwise wall street excesses, the mining disaster in West Virginia and the BP Oil disaster would never have happened. Unless we get corporate influence out of democracy all other solutions are just theory.

  12. Theresa Plese Says:

    I certainly long for governance for the good of the people but I question whether or not the majority actually vote in elections. I have never seen voter turnout numbers over 50% let alone any candidate receiving over 50%.
    We may need some earnest election reform such as dissolution of the electoral college and the addition of “None of the Above” for those of us who are truly dissatisfied with choice of candidates but who wish to vote and have their voices heard.

  13. Gordon Boyd Says:

    One approach to the revenue and entitlement dilemma may be to show the relationship between revenues and expenditures. Why not, for instance, pair up the estate tax with health care? My parents ended up in England (UK), benefited from national health, then their remaining estate was taxed at about 10% above the first $150K or so (1994). My response to that was “they earned it,” the British government that is, having given my parents health care (imperfect as it may be) for about 20+ years. I thought it was a fair bargain. At the time (early 1990s) if my parents had been in the U.S., their entire estate could have been drained above the Medicare level, leaving nothing.

  14. tepk Says:

    The article’s on the money. BUT … just take a look at how the society and the culture have been changing over the last 20-25 years! In the past, there was actually a “united” in the United States … but all the craptalk about “diversity” has, in fact, resulted in disunity as the most recent generations have almost completely devolved into “Me, Myself and I”-ism. There’s no more “T”ogether “E”veryone “A”chieves “M”ore … today, it’s all about “ME”! Considering the make-up of the individuals leading the two major political parties today … and the incessant focus on “controversy” in the electronic media … there’s NO chance to bring back the relative unanimity evident during much of the last century. Now, it’s all about getting it to be “my way or the highway”! Today, the country isn’t “liberal” or “conservative”; it’s become completely libertine.

  15. Todd Gage Says:

    Good article, but this is a bi-partisan issue, not a GOP issue as some of the others have commented. Sure, Republicans are playing partisan games now, but the Democrats will do the same the next time a Republican is in office just like they did during Bush’s second term. It’s just gotten to be a game.

    I pretty much stopped voting for either party. Some say I waste my vote, but how else can we send a message. If, when congress fails to make meaningful change, we continue to vote for our party and justify it by saying it is the other party’s fault, then we will accomplish nothing.

    Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expected a different result.

  16. Gary Hart Says:

    Correction (and response to Mr. Morris): The Esquire issue is for November, out around 20 October. In time for the elections.
    I am confused by Mr. Book who thinks I have a “moral responsibility” to “create digital and social media outlets.” This website is my response to that. As a humble university professor, and someone who has devoted much of his life to public service, I’m not sure what further I am supposed to do or from whence the authority arises to do it.

  17. Forest Book Says:

    Mr. Hart: I realize the moral word is a bit heavy. In the context of the nature of this posting, I felt, given your profile and the profile of your colleagues, that what a better way to provide the leadership on the issues your group solved: the ability to share it on a more broad basis. I think our nation is so ready for “what is next” that the bravado of change has worn off and we are seeking answers. Not solutions. Answers. Answers that give us a viable momentum forward, past the weighted, near Sysiphus like political processes as they exist today. My apologies for using such a weighted word as moral. My respect for you has been long standing. Does “Matters of Principle” have a Facebook page? A You Tube channel to post filmed discussions and debates? I share this site often. I will be glad to continue to do so. Anything I can do, to further my digital and realtime activism. > Thank you Mr. Hart. Sincerely.

  18. Sol Erdman Says:

    Senator Hart, you and your former colleagues are to be congratulated for formulating such a comprehensive plan for dealing with our country’s gravest problems. With all due respect, though, I disagree with your claim that our current lawmakers would do the same if the American people didn’t cede so much power to “rabid ideologues and selfish interest groups.”

    It’s our election system that has handed inordinate power to the fiercest ideologues. After all, as our elections work today, virtually any member of Congress can win reelection just by convincing most voters that the other party is more untrustworthy, incompetent or corrupt than his own. And any politician can craft that message in vivid terms that voters will remember.

    By contrast, could a typical lawmaker convince most voters — from various age groups, income levels and family situations — that his myriad decisions on health care, taxes, deficits, energy and national security were serving their best interests? To each kind of voter, that legislator would need to justify each major decision differently. As you well know, it would be a virtually impossible task.

    In effect, if any member of Congress tries to work out cost-effective solutions to our gravest problems, he or she rarely benefits by it. But if a legislator lets our nation’s troubles grow worse and can pin the blame on the other party, he benefits a great deal.

    Sure, we can urge politicians to transcend these impulses, but that clearly is not working. It will likely never work. Most politicians will never knowingly risk their seats. It would be far more productive to consider alternative ways of organizing our elections, organizing elections so that lawmakers who solved problems intelligently were consistently rewarded for it.

    My organization, the Center for Collaborative Democracy, has proposed one way to make that happen. It’s at

  19. Carol Davidek-Waller Says:

    I don’t think there is an ideological difference between the leadership of the two political parties. They both represent the ruling elite and corporate interests.
    Congress isn’t gridlocked. The Democrats could have changed Senate rules at any time that would allow them to pass good legislation without even having to deal with the minority Party but they chose not to. Both Parties actively undermine those who disagree with leadership, expecially on issues that mean the greatest good for the greatest number.
    The President doesn’t even want to solve our problems. He led the way on bad health care legislation, deplorable energy policy, weak environmental protections, weak financial legislation and militaristic foreign policy and politically driven wars.
    The way forward is to get big money out of government and keep it out. Publicly funded elections and strict enforcement of pay for play laws will do a great deal.
    It should be much easier for Americans to recall elected officials that do not serve the public interest.

  20. Pat Balan Says:

    Dear Mr. Hart:

    As a fellow Coloradan and a former academic you are to be commended on a wonderful idea.

    Here is a suggestion- you and your colleagues should go on all outlets-MSNBC, CNN, Fox news, Comedy central, etc to talk about these issues and your ideas. Also put the ideas out on you tube for all to view.

    One more comment the new media everyday bring out the same so called pundits who spout the regular mantra- if Republican reducing spending ( not one has ever proposed a single program they would cut)-if Democrat the saving of the economy from disaster ( but so watered down) that the ordinary person hardly sees the benefit.

    Maybe the media should bring on line some ordinary people and ask them for their opinion on the real problems we face whether it is Unemployment, health care etc. For example you could start a discussion group to ask people for suggestions on a topic the deficit for example. You will be be surprised at what people may say.

    We have to think as citizens first and partisans later to make this country achieve its true potential as history’s most successful experiment in prosperity for all

    Thank You and all the very best
    Pat Balan

  21. Robert Graham Says:

    Dear Mr. Hart; “And there is nothing, save rabid ideologues and selfish interest groups, to prevent it from working that way now.”
    This is the situation now. Begging the question, how does Congress get there?

  22. Chris Brudy Says:

    I agree with Andy. We would not have to be wishing for bipartisanship from what is left of the Republican party had Reid and the incoming Democrats had changed the cloture and hold rules when the present Senate convened. Is it to be believed that Democratic Senate leadership forgot to take power? Obama and Reid could have given us a public option, or even single payer, and there would be no question the Democrats would be re-elected in a landslide this November. As soon as people were able to buy insurance at a much lower rate, or if under or unemployed, to be subsidized, they would have been ecstatic. There was some question in November ’08 as to the survival of the GOP, had the Democrats fought for the majority of voters who elected them.
    As it is, the idea of a resumed bipartisanship will only occur if the Democrats give their counterparts everything they want, just like the last two and half years.
    No, the Republicans expect the main stream media to keep carping the GOP lies, knowing enough repetition will convince voters of the right wing cause.
    Now is not the time for bipartisanship. Now is the time for the Democrats to fight like mad, pointing out the GOP attack on Social Security.
    Should we hang on to both Houses of Congress, then the new Senate should take cloture down, and do what the public really wants.

  23. Nancy Lee Says:

    This sounds like the perfect discourse for PBS and NPR. Hopefully, it will also be published in the NY Times, The Washington Post and the Huffington Post. In addition, it must be discussed on Meet the Press and other Sunday morning policy shows. Perhaps there is still a place for a rational meeting of the minds, minus the shrill partisanship of Fox News.

  24. Michael Hamman Says:

    OK, that was then and this is now. No one disagrees that the situation you participated in is way it should be. All of us old enough to remember (And i am old enough to have voted for you for President)those days does so with a great fondness. But once the well is poisoned with the virus of partisanship how do you get it clean enough to drink again? How can we ever have a educational debate about the pros and cons of an issue when our moderator i.e. the media, allows and encourages to most outrageous lies and frauds to hype and amp up the emotional content so debate becomes a blood sport and politicians become gladiators in an arena. Gary, how do we get from here to there? How do we dial down the heat and increase the light?

  25. Rick Staggenborg, MD Says:

    I do not beleive it is possible to expect career politicians invested in a Two Party system to risk angering the corporations who fund their campaigns and their respective national committees. The only way that this will change is to demonstrate the cost of putting corporate interests over those of the people.

    I am running for the US Senate from Oregon on a campaign pledge to introduce a Constitutional amendment that will abolish corproate personhood. Any senator who opposes it risks labelling themselves a corproate Puppet:

  26. Rdub Says:

    “Divide and conquer” is the most “textbook” strategy of war and business and it is almost always successful. Our nation has been successfully divided and conquered by the oligarchy, and it would take nothing short of a simultaneous Enlightenment and Revolution to get the powered elite to release this stranglehold. What we think as citizens is irrelevant at this stage. Consensus is impossible under the current memes. Checkmate. Let’s all go take a shower.

  27. P. Edward Murray Says:

    Possible, of course, with the right folks, including you Gary it would be possible…but I’m afraid that we just don’t have the right people…

    And, of course, you know this better than I, it costs too much to run for virtually anything today.

    That is, if anyone would listen, but I’m afraid our time has come and gone now….

  28. Susan Reiter Says:

    Excellent article and confirms what I have been saying in discussions with friends. Parties are locked into ‘differentiating’ themselves on issues. The truth is that on many issues there are many similarities, but it is far more ‘fashionable’ to focus on the differences. Goals have become moving targets and solutions are few and far between.
    Where has the great activism of the 60’s gone? The anti-war movement crossed political lines as did the equal rights movements. I do not consider the Tea Party a legitimate singular movement.

  29. Judith Rose Says:

    What a refreshing article, stating a concept I thought I was idealistically dreaming about: putting the nation’s interests first, statesmanship, willingness to go against your own party because of your own principles, bipartisonship because it’s the right thing to do, going against the lobbyists and campaign money they represent. That’s the type of congressional representation I thought this country was built on. How do we get the message across to our current representatives. I, personally email them — whether they represent my consitituency or not and let them know my thoughts, even praising the, when I thought they did the right thing against their own party’s stance. If I wasn’t one of their constituents, I usually got a form letter telling me they had to put their constituents first in responding and then never to hear from them again.

  30. George Faulkner Says:

    I know there are many suggestions for how to improve elections and the governing process. Mine is the following: that a nonprofit and hopefully nonpartisan organization develop a web-based educational and decision system on each issue area (e.g., Medicare solvency, Social Security solvency, immigration reform, public education, environment regulation, alternative energy promotion, etc.). The goal is a more constructive, informed, and effective process for how citizens and legislative bodies reach decisions on solutions to problems that then require legislative action. The concept has two elements:
    − The tool itself: a web-based decision system itself that forces full and objective consideration of various solution options for solving a particular public issue, a listing of the consequences of each option, and documentation of evidence for claims made in support of or against each specific option. The tool would be set up and maintained by a nonpartisan organization with initial input from widely respected groups and experts (e.g., universities, think tanks, the CBO, etc.) but would then be “open” (in a controlled way) to ongoing modification as new potential solutions are identified or new ramifications of proposed options are uncovered.
    − Its application: publicity and effective pressure to encourage politicians (elected representatives and candidates for office) or their designated staff complete the decision tool so that their results would be publicly disclosed. Advocacy groups and citizens could also use it to help clarify their own positions. Ideally, a nationally broadcast Sunday talk show would use the tool to force guests to be specific about how they would deal with a problem, rather than just critiquing another’s proposed solution, as was usually the case with the health care reform “debate.”

    The key to its success is that each issue must be sufficiently defined to lead to specific solutions where consequences can be reasonably estimated. An example: “health care reform” itself is too broad of an issue and would need to be broken down into such areas as achieving Medicare solvency, achieving Medicaid solvency, fixing Medicaid provider payment levels, insuring or providing care for the uninsured (including not just emergency care but also prevention and chronic condition management), single payer vs. managed competition, ensuring competitive insurance company practices, making coverage more affordable for those not covered under Medicaid, reducing/controlling over-utilization and payments for ineffective treatments, medicines, and technologies, and improving hospital safety and quality of care.

    For each issue, there might be (for example) 3-10 potential solutions. For many issues multiple solutions might be appropriate (where not conflicting) and need to be prioritized. In most cases, proposed solutions would have to be supported by cost/benefit projections (e.g., click on a link to the supporting evidence and citations to journal studies, etc.).

    An example: solving Medicare funding. The potential solution options might be: (1) raise the eligibility age, (2) raise premium contributions for those enrolled, (3) raise the Medicare payroll tax, (4) change provider payments to reduce cost, (5) use comparative effectiveness research to limit what is paid, etc. Each of these options has advantages and drawbacks, which would have to be listed and could be commented on by those using the tool. But at least they are specific and force people to understand the consequences and realize that there are no simple answers –some interest group will have to pay more, earn less, have less choice, or lose a job in order to solve this problem.

  31. Gary Hart Says:

    High caliber discussion as usual and thanks to all. To clarify: the four of us were not self-selected. Esquire contacted each of us. We have no authority as a group to promote these ideas in the media at large, even if media outlets invited us (which I’m sure they would not). There is a mistaken notion that former Senators can call up a network and get attention. Doesn’t work that way.
    The common theme throughout these comments is a broken election system–difficult to quarrel with. If there were free media time for qualified candidates and limits on overall campaign expenditures, we would go a long way to fixing it. But that’s another discussion.

  32. AmyInNH Says:

    “If they don’t achieve what we demand of them, perhaps we ought to get our mirrors out and ask ourselves whether we all might share some blame.” The inference from this is that we get the politicians we elect. I think most people will disagree with that. We get campaign promises and allusions and end up with something entirely different. We are often snowed with red herring issues and placated with bogus solutions. “The government” is broken.

  33. rich domingue Says:

    I agree with Tomas Agee – the underlying cause of gridlock isn’t senate rules (although they do contribute), or voter apathy. The cause of gridlock is the “government is the problem” meme, made a fealty banner by the Reaganites and broadly disseminated since. Of course, having a totally inept liar in the White House for 8 years didn’t help either. As America touts government “of, by, and for” the people, American’s distrust of their government unveils not some sixties-ish disdain for authority, but a deep distrust of ourselves and our fellow Americans. I had hope that a highly successful Obama presidency might reduce this distrust. Thus far, that hope is far from realized. Thank you Mr. Hart, for continuing to champion statesmanship – it gives me hope.

  34. Tom Gleason Says:

    Gary:Why the reference in the opening of this post to an “unprecedentedly rigid opposition party” without also acknowledging an irresponsible majority party–one that brought the backroom deals and the purchase of votes to new levels of shame that certainly didn’t serve the best interests of the nation? In failing to do so, you followed the same worn path on which Democrats blame Republicans and Republicans blame Democrats. Our nation is in an unprecedented crisis and we will not survive unless we can count on people such as you to put the “lockstep partisanship” you condemn aside and be true statesmen.

  35. Ann Dietrich Says:

    The Esquire article is a smart idea from both a practical and a political perspective. I look forward to discovering how your group took account of social values in determining the monetary ones. And, I hope that our leaders can find it useful as well–after all, everybody in Congress, including Republicans, must work on the budget. Given that the Social Security fund is slated to dry up just at the time I will retire and will have paid into it for an entire career, I’m looking forward to knowing how you’ve solved that problem. If you’ve foregone your social security check for the good of others, I’ll thank you now. Living by example is an undeniably credible and, therefore, influential way to bring about change for the better.

  36. Headboard Light Says:

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