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Former senators Tom Daschle, a Democrat, and Trent Lott, a Republican, have very real ideological differences and served on opposite sides of the aisle during some of the most contentious times in Senate history, including the Clinton impeachment.
Now, the two politicians are coming together to sound the alarm on the polarization that has made Americans lose faith in their government, which can’t get much done anyway because of the deep divide between the two parties.
Lott and Daschle lay out a prescription for change in their new book, “Crisis Point: Why We Must – and How We Can – Overcome Our Broken Politics in Washington and Across America.” They talk with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.
By Trent Lott and Tom Daschle
America’s strength has always come from its unique diversity—its willingness to not just permit but encourage competing viewpoints in order to strengthen the whole. The adversarial system, embedded by the Founding Fathers into our system of government, was meant to spur debate, challenge complacency, and drive progress. It has sustained our Republic for over 225 years, but we have to face a sad truth: it has stopped working. In fact, it has begun to work against us.
Our system of checks and balances was not designed to encourage the kind of inertia plaguing our current leaders in Washington. The quality of our United States Congress—and, by extension, the American government—continues to grow increasingly dysfunctional. As former legislators, Senate leaders, and concerned citizens, we are alarmed.
We have a combined fifty-nine years in Congress, with over sixteen as Senate majority and minority leaders, so we know of what we speak. The center can no longer hold under such mindless and unprecedented partisanship: it is no exaggeration to say that the state of our democracy is as bad as we’ve ever seen it. The two of us have the experience of leading our parties during extremely partisan and combative times—President Clinton’s impeachment, a deadlocked Senate, post-9/11 America—so we are not naïve about how these things actually work. Though we have philosophical differences about the role of government, as well as divergent views on many important issues, we can agree that it is time to sound the alarm.
The United States government is at a crisis point that requires significant changes: in leadership, in action, and most importantly in mind-set. The New York Times reported that the most recent Congress was “one of the least productive, most divided in history . . . By traditional measurements, the 113th Congress is now in a race to the bottom with the 112th for the ‘do nothing’ crown.”1 The dysfunction has created not just antipathy but anger among the public, with a CNN poll finding an 83 percent disapproval rating of Congress.2 Other polls have approval of Congress regularly in the single digits. Obviously, polls don’t tell the whole story—and government should not be at their mercy—but the fact that such a whopping majority of the public has expressed dissatisfaction with Congress is much more than just a canary in the coal mine: it’s a whole flock of them.
We’ve traveled around the world and attended the inauguration of other leaders, and one thing that’s remarkable in contrast with ours: almost without exception, foreign leaders take an oath of office to the people. In America, we take an oath of office to support and defend the Constitution. We take an oath not to the masses but to an idea and a set of principles. That’s magical.
The Constitution was not written as a precise set of instructions; it was to serve as a blueprint for how the young Republic would sustain itself and grow for the future. Jefferson and Madison’s generation had enormous faith in ours—enough to trust our judgment. At the very least, they’d be confused by what has happened. More likely, they’d be devastated. Partisan rancor has overtaken reasoned debate so completely that an entire generation wonders what Congress does all day. And we’d be hard-pressed to answer them.
The two of us entered politics at different times, under different conditions, and from far different perspectives, but our respective stories help tell the larger story of this great nation. Our careers, battles, and accomplishments flow into the larger river of the American story.
Although we don’t claim to have a panacea to all the problems, we do understand the key ingredients needed to get us moving forward again. We know that communication within and between the parties—and the relationships that result—creates chemistry, an absolute necessity to the functioning of good government. As we look at the political landscape, we see five things that are desperately needed: chemistry, compromise, leadership, courage, and vision.
During the historic 50–50 Senate of 2001, Congress was numerically deadlocked but not operationally so. As respective leaders of our parties in the Senate, we came together to formulate a historic power sharing agreement, gaining the vitriol of some of our respective caucuses in the process. Trent nearly got a vote of no confidence from the Republican caucus for even negotiating with Tom and the Democrats. But we managed to line up our colleagues behind us—through leadership, compromise, and a good dose of chemistry—and got to work conducting the country’s business.
Believing in the necessity for direct communication amid the noise, we installed a phone on each of our desks that rang directly through to the other leader. The phones were practical, but they were also symbolic of an open line of communication we maintained while in our leadership positions. Considering what the country had to go through in those years, it could not have been more necessary.
We also navigated, among other historic and challenging moments, the impeachment of President Clinton, 9/11 and its aftermath, and anthrax in the Capitol. Drawing on these experiences, as well as many others in our long careers as legislators, in this book we will:
Bipartisanship is the life force that keeps our government running. It is neither a life raft to be embraced only in crisis nor a naïve idealism to be mocked. Bipartisan negotiation is the pumping blood of democracy, and it has run dry in the current Washington landscape. Without it, government is just voices shouting in a room—with nobody listening. “The best way to persuade,” former secretary of state Dean Rusk once said, “is with your ears.”3
Today’s leaders don’t practice bipartisanship and the environment of the nation’s capital doesn’t allow for it. The common ground has been stripped and scorched, allowing no community to grow. The ubiquity of planes and telecommunication have made it feasible to work in Washington without living there.
(In fact, being a Washington resident is regularly used against candidates.) True to its name, the media has become a comfortable filter through which both sides can hurl partisan assaults without having to face each other. Meanwhile, primaries have begun to reward the extremes, chasing away moderates and turning off voters through an increasing arms race of outside money and negativity.
But there is hope. And it begins with the strength that already exists within this great nation and its people. It begins with each and every one of us. The future is far from written. During our extensive congressional careers, we each drove hard to push mostly clashing agendas—under presidents from opposing parties—so we speak from pragmatic experience. We have dedicated our lives to serving our country and feel deeply for its future. We sincerely believe that the tide can be turned. Nothing less than the country’s future depends on it.
We have decided to join together for a common cause because we know our opposing voices, when joined together, create a force stronger than their individual weight. Our contrasting identities and philosophies also serve as a metaphor for the country itself. Yet we worked together, remain friends, and share a vision for how we can get moving again.
This book is a call to action, a clarion call to our leaders, the voters, the lapsed voters, those in public service, and those considering going into public service. We will show how the country can learn from where it has been, examine how we arrived at the current state of dysfunction, and, hopefully, help to inspire a new dawn of American politics.
Senator Trent Lott and Senator Tom Daschle
Excerpted from the book CRISIS POINT by Kevin Powers. Copyright © 2016 by Trent Lott and Tom Daschle. Reprinted with permission of Bloomsbury Press.