Power Shifts

Author: Gary Hart

Anyone who believed the Democratic party would retain control of all policy-making branches of government for very long in a period of great economic and political upheaval was not being realistic.  That the political pendulum would swing back after the 2008 election was never in doubt.  That it happened so quickly was the surprise.  Now, anyone in the White House who spends much time grieving is wasting time.  Accept political reality and make the most of it.

After the obligatory gestures of cooperative intentions on both sides, the governing artistry must turn to testing intentions.  If the president and Democratic leaders govern only by veto, they will lose in 2012.  On the other hand, if Republican leaders insist on a roll-back of the Obama agenda of the past two years, they will squander their current advantage and probably not expand their recent gains.

If there is genuine desire on both sides to govern by collaboration, there are arenas in which to operate: liquidating two wars in a responsible way; continuing temporary tax cuts for a reasonable period of time, while laying out the principles for a balanced budget by 2020; creating publicly financed public works, infrastructure projects to create jobs and build the base for economic growth and competitiveness; reforming the military for the conflicts of the future not the past; and the remaining list is obvious. 

In a word, start with the agenda on which both parties can agree, resolve that, then move on to more basic areas of disagreement.  The fear of many Americans, including myself, is that the two basic political philosophies are incompatible.  If so, the country is ungovernable for any period longer than two or four years when one party or the other can control the executive and legislative branches.  Then the deeply divided nation moves the pendulum back the other way.  This is an adolescent approach to politics, to government, and to citizenship.

During a recent exercise, sponsored by Esquire magazine, to demonstrate how government can and should work by putting senior retired figures of both parties together to produce a balanced budget–which we did in three days without the always helpful guidance of the lobbying army of America–the issue was defined.  One of us, former Senator Jack Danforth, said: we have to decide how much government we can afford.  Another, myself, countered with this: we must decide what kind of society we want.  Those are the two view points now bracketing American politics.

Governing by cooperation is complicated but not impossible.  Governing by confrontation is doomed to fail and guarantees stalemate as far into the future as anyone can see.  The Democratic party will waste its time if it engages in self-commiseration.  It must now restate the principles that distinguish it from the Republican party–the belief in national community (Roosevelt), the commitment to shared security (Truman), belief in republican duty (Kennedy), and a commitment to equality and justice (Johnson).  A generation of Americans has never had these principles explained to them.

Differences in principle do distinguish the two parties.  But they must not prevent the possibility of accommodation in the national interest.  For it is the national interest that is greater than either party.

14 Responses to “Power Shifts”

  1. @meryl333 Says:

    Your article was the first breath of fresh air I’ve breathed since Tuesday. Love that you defined the issues: 1) what kind of government can we afford and 2) what kind of society do we want . I believe if we focus on what we have in common: Desire for sustainable, liveable planet, ability to make a living wage and provide for families, education and ability to live in peace, we may have a workable start. What does sustainable mean? liveable? what kind of education? what do we mean when we say “living wage”? What does the country you want to live in look like in 50 years if you could get everything you want to make it happen? Let’s finds some shared vision and work our way back to steps we need to take today to make that happen.

  2. sandra kunz Says:

    The populace is dedicated to listening to the media which is nothing more than someone’s opinion for the most part. The talking heads reign!

    Hate mongers such as Limbaugh, Beck, et al fuel the radicals. It is evident how much influence they have–witness this election. Gone are the days of the “news readers.” With the exception of THE NEWS HOUR on PBS everyone’s opinion on any given political subject, candidate (or any other issue for that matter) is abundantly clear.

    Civility is dying or dead. How can one expect anything to be accomplished in congress when leaders such as Beohner and McConnell have stated unequivocally that they want President Obama to fail, to be a one-term President. They obviously care nothing about the state of the country but care only about grabbing power.

    I’m truly disheartened.

  3. Andy Says:

    While Americans (perhaps all democratic societies) have a tendency to oscillate in order to keep two options in check (which is frustrating at best because it encourages short term fixes), I think the problem that Democrats faced in this round was a deep failure in communication – and at several levels. On one level, the Obama administration failed to present the case for its major initiatives in clear and concise ways that could be understood by all. On a more important level, the Obama administration has not defined what his “change” platform means. What is “his” vision of America and can it become “our” vision for America. I think few will argue that our priorities will be to restore America to greatness – to be #1 in commerce, to be #1 in moral leadership, to be #1 in education, to be #1 in standard of living, etc. Agree and focus on the key underlying principle(s) and then lay out a practical and collaborative plan to get this done, including taking a hard look at the role of Government and the role of citizens and the private sector towards this goal. What’s really missing, I feel, is a sense that we are all working towards a specific, common goal – that in this leadership vacuum, the best alternative is mutually assured destruction of democrats and republicans. Without a specific vision that at least a majority can agree on, Obama will be the victim of the next campaign for change.

  4. Paul Siegel Says:

    You’ve got it right. Our society is too competitive. It’s time to be more cooperative. I’m happy to see that there are some liberals who believe in Obama’s cooperative approach to politics.

    I think Obama’s and the Democrats’ motto should be: “SHARED PROSPERITY.” We don’t want to pit one group against another. We want everybody to share in a prosperous economy.

  5. Michael Says:

    Wise counsel, Senator Hart. Unfortunately, the Republicans have shown that they have no intention of cooperating with the Democrats. In order for there to be cooperation, each side has to respect the other. When Obama shows his unnerving inclination to cave to the Republican’s every demand, never standing his ground, why should they respect him?

  6. Bob Says:

    I live alone, make about $35k/year, pay off all of my bills when they are due, do not have any debt, house paid off, money saved for retirement, money saved in the bank. Why can’t our federal government operate like this? I could live beyond my means, but choose not to.

    Prior generations have always passed down good things to future generations – our generation is spending money we do not have and passing along the bill to future generations – to me this is beyond irresponsibility.

    Federal politicians trying to control their spending of money reminds me of the serial killer who cries out “stop me before I kill again.” We need a balanced-budget amendment just so they can control themselves – otherwise the lunacy will roll on…

  7. Mad Hemingway Says:


    The biggest decision the Dems have now is how to get rid of the guy at the top of the ticket, otherwise, the base will sitting home in 2012 and the GOP will increase their majorities plus take the White House. Hard to believe 2 years ago.

    My parents are FDR Democrats (they were born and grew up in the Great Depression) and they both got fed up with Obama and his corporate Dems, and sat it out last week. That’s the first time I remember them not voting (I voted early for the Greens and 2 Dems (1 won, 1 lost)).

    As the guy wrote on Common Dreams, Obama was willfully used and now he’s used up.

  8. Chern Says:

    Senator Hart, u clicked on a raw nerve in me. Today’s politicians spend too much time & energy burying each other that they didn’t even notice they’re committing harakiri on themselves. This is made worse by their own loud, ideological base, egging them to war and death. Politics have become a gladiator sport, where there’s a winner & a loser. I don’t think anyone cares anymore if we’ll all lose in the end. Both stubborn extreme ideological ends of the spectrum are equally to be blamed for the dysfunction. The center has become our only hope for governing by cooperation to work. Unfortunately, voices of the center are increasingly being smothered by their more extreme confrontational counterparts.

  9. Jeanne Tifft Says:

    When, Senator, will the Democrats develop and reinforce a consistent communications plan that explains things? Could you possibly undertake to spearhead such a thing? Get all the Democrats’ organizations on the same page, hire a master communications specialist, and launch. Or can’t Dems work together either??

  10. WIlliam Colbert Says:

    A litmus test for who thinks what about the US Public: Sent to: VP Joe Biden’s The Middle Class Task Force

    Define ASSET as control over all or any part of any stock or flow of value. Move government held assets out from behind the shield of Sovereign Immunity and into the Prudent Person Standard of Care. One way to start this with NO government action needed would be to organize an Alaska-like Permanent Fund in every legislative district as a cooperative owned equally by every resident of each district, and require managers to be held to the standard required in the case of Brane v. Roth, in which the court ordered managers to pay restitution to members when managers failed to take appropriate steps to protect the members’ interests. These organizations would lobby, advertise, etc. to make their members better off, just as corporations with much narrower special interests do, with the massive new blessing of the Supreme Court. See the website era2000.net for more.

  11. Debbie Lackowitz Says:

    Senator Hart. Your piece was shall I say quite hopeful. I think that’s how it best could be summarized. And you gave excellent points to both Democrats AND Republicans. But you’re using your head. Most of the populace is using their ‘gut’. Is it wrong? Wrong, right whatever. It’s how it is. Hence the past election. Should this have happened? No. NOT if the voters actually listened to what was being said. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Why? Cause we’re on a ‘slippery slope’ Sir. A ‘slippery slope’ to Third World America’. And Americans voted for it in 2010. Will they again in 2012? I’m hoping for ‘voter remorse’ here. Cause I really, really don’t think they understood what they were voting in. Citizens United, the Chamber of Commerce all are culpable here. But the average American who voted thinks THEY won. Imagine that. What happens when the Tea Partiers realize that they didn’t really win? Cause they didn’t. What then? Another bloodbath? This time on the Republican side? This is the see saw that we will be on until both sides come to the conclusion that what we really want is for them to work together to solve the complicated problems that we are faced with in the 21st Century. And for that to happen, the special interests that have taken over need to take a ‘back seat’ and let the people’s work get done. Wow. Could they be that magnanimous? I’m starting to think not. Cause there’s way too much $$$ at stake.

  12. Gary Hart Says:

    Andy says it better than I did. Missing is a common purpose and a sense of the long-term national interest. Cable television (not all media) prospers on the 15 of so percent on each extreme that is angry and too often hateful. It is difficult to move forward when each group is pulling left or right. Too many pollitians spend too much time trying to placate those angry groups. To Jeanne Tifft, a composite, coalition party (Democrats) will never have a corporate message that Republicans have proved expert at imposing on its members. On the other hand, the Republican party now faces a serious internal struggle that will determine its future: either folly the extreme anti-government right or re-establish responsible traditional conservatism.

  13. Publius Says:

    What is missing from these discussions is the fact that philosophically the conservative and liberal factions of our society are growing further apart. Carl Jung asserts that action takes place within a world of shared meanings. We do not have agreement on many of the basic issues of government, what are its limits and what is its role? This is no different than at the founding, the arguments of the Federalists and anti-Federalists still ring true today.

    But it goes deeper. Our society defines through language, myth, histories that are distinctly different. Liberals and conservatives speak and think in fundamentally different ways. This comes through most clearly on a variety of issues such as; reproductive rights, taxation, gun rights, and the welfare state. There is a distinctly different perspective for each of these issues that is further altered by the “narrow casting” which each of participates in when choosing our news outlets. Furthermore, the internet and 24/7 cable news have made our views more restrictive instead of more diverse. In the process our collective memories are being rewritten by individuals with enormous power and influence,basic knowledge is contradicted (climate change and natural selection for instance) are being challenged not on merit but on ideology. It is this battle for history and language where the real political battle will be won or lost.

    Obama has done little to excite the psyche of the United States. There has been no defining theme, such as the moon mission, the New Deal, the Re-inventing of government. Instead we listen to a president who is lost in his own rhetoric, painfully evidenced in a recent Daily Show interview. Obama must find his “voice” that is detached from ideology, that strikes a nerve with the American people. He is mechanical and detached, he shows no connection to the American consciousness perhaps because he really doesn’t understand the fundamental hopes, dreams, and fears of the American populace.

  14. Richard Says:

    To presume that the Republican party is inclined in any manner to compromise and find solutions to issues that do not solely benifit their constituency of big business and reactionary tea baggers is foolish. For every attempt by Obama and the Democratic majority to reach out, the Republicans have rejected the offers and moved the goal posts. Control of anything by the Republicans is not only a threat to the Republic but will become a threat to peace.

    One only has to look at the pressure to attack Iran – a country with a military budget the size of Norway at best – and a nuclear program where no evidence whatsoever has been shown that it is close to creating a nuclear weapon. The Israeli lobby has won its battle to continue building homes on occupied territory and extending its apartheid policies which will ulimately result in another conflict.

    The US is reduced to begging China to adjust its monetary policies because it has lost all leverage. The Republican years in control have made US foreign policy initiatives as credible as those of Hugo Chavez. Compromise? Senator, there can be none.

    Unfortunately, the complete collapse of responsible and accurate journalism in the US has aided the rise of the truly ignorant and dangerous – both in the general population and with the likes of Beck and Palin. Unless you can figure out a way to bring responsible voices back to the Republican party, forget compromise. These people are not even the Nixonian Republicans whom I well remember and fought against. I look back on them as reasonable compared to the Boehner’s, Inhofe’s, Palin’s and their ilk.

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