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Joe Lieberman: Why Washington Will Start Functioning Again

6 minute read
Lieberman, a former U.S. Senator for Connecticut, is national co-chairman of No Labels.

Popular opinion in America today is complicated and confusing. On the one hand, the evidence suggests that America has actually become less partisan. The percentage of Americans who self-identify as Republican or Democrat has fallen consistently for more than a decade, and the plurality who identify as Independent has grown. In other words, Americans are becoming less drawn to and invested in each of the two major political parties that have controlled our government since before the Civil War.

At the same time, many Americans have become more doctrinally conservative or more progressive, even if they don’t subscribe to a party label. That’s why politicians in Washington are so frequently loath to reach across the aisle: They worry that if they show themselves to be bipartisan, someone from the fringes of their own party will take them on in a primary campaign.

Amid all these mixed messages, many Americans are losing faith in our democracy. They either feel more jaded as our parties fail to construct legislation that serves everyone’s beliefs — despite repeated calls, like this one, for greater bipartisanship — or they grow angered and more fiercely loyal than ever before. They ask: Why should anyone be hopeful?

Well, I’ve got two reasons.

One is that while many of us shake our fists at Washington and others write nasty comments on social media, most Americans realize that the people they disagree with hold legitimate points of view. Even in early 2018, Gallup polling found that a clear majority favored negotiating with the other side, while only 18% wanted their representatives in Congress to “stick to their beliefs.” They know that the only way to get anything done is by working together.

That sentiment should be a call to our nation’s leaders. Better governance emerges when everyone has input into policy solutions. Good policy is good politics. As much as voters may now seem to be swinging from one political extreme to the other, the most successful American leaders to come will be those who build bridges across our differences.

Take, as an example, possible action on two problems that have transfixed Washington for much of the last two months: immigration reform and border security. Republicans and Democrats seem helplessly opposed on these two topics. The tribal right claims that liberals care more about coddling illegal immigrants than keeping violent gangs off our streets; the tribal left argues that conservatives would rip innocent families apart while building a pointless and expensive wall.

It is true that many Americans articulate one of those two points of view. But very few of us actually want to deport law-abiding adults who were brought here as children — and no one wants terrorists to walk unquestioned across the nation’s southern border. The vast majority of America wants to save the kids and protect the homeland — and even if they only express support for one view, they’d surely support a grand bargain.

The second big reason for hope is that things are beginning to turn around. In the House of Representatives, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, a group consisting of 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans, proposed this very compromise and advocated for it time and again, sending a bipartisan letter to Speaker Paul Ryan demanding consideration. This means if Speaker Ryan is willing to lose the votes of the far right of his party — as he was willing to do with the passage of the long-term budget deal on February 9th — he can call forward an immigration bill that satisfies the broad majority in both parties, even as the extremists in both parties are opposed. In other words, the Problem Solvers are providing Congressional leaders with a new powerful bipartisan tool.

A comparable bipartisan group in the Senate led by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia has developed a similar compromise — one which recently won a majority of support among Senators, but was thwarted by a procedural hurdle. Their group, the Common Sense Coalition, is yet another beacon of bipartisan hope, and their success crafting a bipartisan compromise on immigration and border security invites negotiations on a range of other issues. Both groups work with No Labels, an organization I co-chair that works to create a new center in American politics that puts country before party. If they keep at it and can convince the White House to join them, I’m convinced these two bipartisan organizations will eventually break Washington out of its partisan rut.

I know there is a better path. During my 2006 campaign for re-election to the Senate, I found myself in uncharted political territory. Although I’d been a Democrat from the day I’d registered in the early 1960s, and I’d voted with Senate Democrats more often than not, I was primaried by a candidate who charged that I did not vote with my party enough, particularly as it turned against the Iraq war. He won the primary.

Many presumed my political career was over. But I was confident that my approach was one that most residents of Connecticut embraced. My supporters didn’t have the loudest voices in any room. They weren’t like the talking heads barking at each other on cable television shows. They didn’t always vote in primaries. But I knew hundreds of thousands supported my bipartisan approach to governing. So I ran as an Independent in the fall election. And I won.

Unfortunately, the same partisan dynamics I faced in 2006 have grown much more pronounced in the years that followed. America’s current frustration with Washington is rooted in the electorate’s anger that the two parties are constantly at war with one another. The public is disgusted by the bickering and backbiting that has seemingly overtaken real debate and problem-solving. Over the decades, Congress has become less productive. Members are more vindictive.

The road ahead won’t be easy. The recent dissembling of our democracy has been serious — but it’s reversible. America has bridged more difficult differences before in our history, and we will again. The great promise of our nation is that people with different points of view can make more progress together than they would if any single individual or tribe went it alone. It is more necessary today than ever.

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