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Moving America forward requires common sense, courage and leadership

This is how we get big things done.

By William McKenzie

Moving America forward
Moving America forward

Joe Lieberman and Will Hurd approach politics with the same orientation: The political arena is a place to get things done, especially big things.

Lieberman is a former Democratic vice presidential nominee who later became an independent in his last term as a Connecticut senator, while Hurd is a former Republican congressman from Texas. Their shared view of governing and leadership should not sound earth-shattering, but their common pursuit runs afoul of today’s partisan politics.

We probably all know what doesn’t work: fanaticism that turns into violence, partisans seeing opponents as immoral enemies, and justifying opposition to an idea simply by pointing out that the other party favors it. The flip side of that approach is what interests me most: What can work in Washington and around the country to move America forward?

That is what makes the observations of Lieberman and Hurd worth considering. Here are a few of the recommendations from their exchange with my Bush Institute colleague Matthew Rooney and me for the most recent edition of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute:

  • Have convictions but be open-minded about translating them into policy.
  • Have a vision for where you want to go but deal with the realities on the ground.
  • Feel free to oppose the other party’s ideas but respect them and their advocates.
  • Employ common sense and show some backbone.
  • Come to the middle to compromise.
  • Don’t start with a list of 100 things you want done. Start small and build out. Negotiate by addition, not subtraction.

These former legislators recently have written books elaborating upon their strategies for making Washington work. Lieberman argues in The Centrist Solution: How We Made Government Work and How We Can Make It Work Again that centrism is not a philosophy. Rather, it is a strategy for getting things done. It starts with being willing to meet people with different views, constructively discussing a public problem, and being willing to negotiate a resolution.

Hurd is the author of American Reboot: An Idealist’s Guide to Getting Big Things Done. He argues in his book for a pragmatic idealism, which involves applying one’s beliefs to realities on the ground. His chapters show the way with titles like Show Up So You Can Listen, Don’t Pander, Build Trust, and We Are All in This Boat Together.

I particularly like the admonition about showing up to listen. Hurd writes how he held about 400 public events, including 25 town hall meetings, during his first term. That was no small feat given that his district took 10-plus hours to drive across going 80 miles per hour.

“I may have started the trips with the intention to have as many opportunities as possible to persuade my constituents to vote for me,” he explained, “but I realized early on that these trips presented opportunities for me to listen.”

Hearing the other side, and trying to understand their views, does not mean you must let go of your own convictions. But it does require you to at least realize what another person values and why they prize it.

Authentic listening involves hard work. It means engaging someone with whom you fundamentally disagree. It requires both sides to get beyond talking points. And it demands recognizing the dignity of the other person and not demonizing them.

I am under no illusions that Americans suddenly are going to experience a political Great Awakening where people on the extremes in each party are going to slap their heads, and say, “Oh, you are right. We are going to start working with people we consider immoral.” A recent Pew Research Center study found that 63% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans think members of the opposing party are more immoral than other Americans.

But it is possible for the quiet people in the middle — the ones who hear the other quiet people, as George H.W. Bush once said of himself — to take the fundamentals that Lieberman and Hurd are talking about and apply them to public problems.

We can do things

Those essential ingredients were on display in the bipartisan gun control legislation that Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut got Congress to pass after the Uvalde massacre. No one got everything they wanted. More could have been done. But the legislation included elements that met some of each party’s goals.

Similarly, the White House signed an infrastructure bill this year that legislators like Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia shepherded through long negotiations. We will have better roads, bridges and even greater internet access because problem-solvers in the two parties employed common sense and showed some backbone. You know it’s a breakthrough when President Joseph Biden and GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky applaud the same bill.

Ukraine is another example of where Democrats and Republicans, along with European allies, largely have come together. Although not all the support for Ukraine has easily come about, we have seen a common effort to keep Ukraine free. This is a good example of democracy pushing back against authoritarianism.

These examples show working together for the common good can be done. But it requires leadership. My Bush Institute colleague Holly Kuzmich wrote in this same edition of The Catalyst how leaders make change happen in Washington, D.C., by raising public awareness of an issue; setting an inclusive, optimistic tone; having a clear set of principles to guide any negotiations; and making sure each side gets some kind of win in the compromise.

Some looming challenges are ripe for this kind of leadership. Hurd points to protecting our digital infrastructure from foreign adversaries. Lieberman suggests creating innovative public-private partnerships that enhance our ability to compete with China. And they both contend that the way to modernize our immigration system is through securing our border and streamlining pathways to legal immigration.

China particularly presents an opportunity for both parties to share a common agenda. As Hurd says, Beijing wants to attract the rest of the world to its model of governance. So, let’s keep finding ways to show that our model of democratic governance and market economics works effectively while upholding and protecting our values.

One way to persuade others around the world, especially skeptics, is for both parties to demonstrate that we still can get things done, including big things. Another way is for Congress to keep adequately investing in initiatives like the National Endowment for Democracy, Radio Free Asia, and Voice of America. Efforts like those help other nations learn about democracy and grow institutions like a free press and an independent judiciary. In return, they benefit from an open society. They are not going to reap those rewards if they follow Beijing’s route. Just ask relatives of imprisoned Hong Kong democracy activists or Uyghurs living in China’s concentration camps.

Localism matters, too

Of course, we the people have a central role to play in making Washington, or any level of government, work better. In that regard, there may be reason to hope. A team of political scientists authored a study this spring entitled “Moderates.” In short, they contend that political elites are more polarized than the moderate majority, who tend to hold a mixture of political views.

Some political scientists rebut their conclusion, but Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt says he sees a silent majority at the local level that is not as polarized as some political and cultural elites. Holt, a Republican elected in a nonpartisan race, passionately believes in renewing our country through a greater belief in pluralism. Most people still understand, he said in a recent exchange, that our country is best served by working through our differences.

Working constructively with others with different views is sometimes more easily done at the local level. After all, there are no Republican streets or Democratic water supplies. We all need them, no matter our party leanings. Local politics can be bruising, but there is a reason that mayors like Holt contend that leading a city is one of the best jobs in politics.

The past is a guide

We certainly have plenty to learn from the past about common solutions. The bipartisan coalition of President George W. Bush, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Republican Sen Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, and Democratic Rep. George Miller of California passed the landmark No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. President Bill Clinton and GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia negotiated, sometimes acrimoniously, a balanced budget deal in 1997. And Reagan White House chief of Staff James A. Baker III joined with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill and a team of Republican and Democratic leaders to save Social Security from financial peril in the early 1980s.

Breakthroughs like those don’t happen without each side attempting to hear the other, understanding what they need, and building a compromise from the middle out. Along the way, friendships even develop.

Readers may have heard stories of Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford being friends with Democrat O’Neill despite their differences. I got a glimpse of this kind of relationship while editing an opinion journal in Washington in the 1980s. One afternoon, I was interviewing Sen. Bob Dole in an open seating area near the U.S. House when the Kansas Republican’s eyes suddenly lit up. Then, I heard a big, booming voice behind me.

It was O’Neill, scurrying with aides through the area. Dole rose, the pair engaged cheerfully, and O’Neill bellowed in his Massachusetts accent, “Can’t I get you a meeting room?” Dole politely declined and we both sat back down and watched the Democratic legend walk down the long hall. O’Neill turned around at the end of the room, and shouted again, “You sure I can’t get you a room?” Dole smiled, once more politely declined, and said something to me to the effect of, there goes a great man.

I think of that story frequently when it comes to practicing pluralism, which is engaging respectfully with others with whom we disagree. Sometimes, people just see the world differently. That reality doesn’t make “the other” immoral or our enemy. When we move beyond a binary view of the world, sometimes we can even work through our differences to “get big things done.”

We’ve certainly done it before.

William McKenzie is editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.

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