Washington, DC seem dysfunctional to many Americans lately. The word compromise seems to have become a dirty word, as legislators on both sides of the aisle fear that if they don’t take the most extreme views, they will face a primary challenge. But it isn’t merely Congress that is suffering from a public relations problem, so is the President. With the recent fiscal cliff crisis, the President seemed at times to be missing in action and not the visionary and strong leader that people imagine a Lincoln or FDR or JFK or Reagan to have been. Can Washington work? Can Washington repair its battered image? Is this the worse that it has ever been?
First, although Washington seems dysfunctional, it actually has been worse. Jefferson as President was seen as an atheist, who would take away American’s bibles, and an agent of the French Revolution who would destroy the nation. In the pre-Civil War years, one Southern Congressman caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and legislation came to a standstill. In the 1970s with Vietnam, Watergate, and then the Carter presidency there was a feeling that Washington was broken and could never work. The 1980s disproved that theory. So what must be done to give the American public a feeling that Washington works and is not as dysfunctional as it seems?
First Washington needs to admit that they have a problem. Politicians always run campaigning about the Washington mess, yet once elected do nothing to change the climate and make the place work. You can’t fix a problem unless you acknowledge one.
Starting with the President, I would recommend limiting his media exposure so he can use the fabled bully pulpit more. In his first term, President Obama overexposed himself so much that many Americans were tuning him out. There is a tendency in the 24/7 news cycle to respond to every interview yet doing that costs a President his most important commodity, his voice in shaping public policy. Even though reporters complained about Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the two Bushes limiting their availability to the media, when they spoke Americans listened and responded. Poll numbers would move and politicians of both parties would respond in enacting legislation. President Obama will face battles over the debt ceiling, immigration, and like every President, some unknown issue. By limiting his availability to the media, it means when he speaks on these major issues, more Americans will tune him in and politicians will react.
Next, the President should make his rhetoric more inclusive. Americans are tired of the polarization of politics and the heated rhetoric. Too often in his first term and even during the recent fiscal cliff crisis, the President has taken to demonizing his opponents. Nothing leads to deadlock and frayed feelings then rhetoric that seems intent on scoring partisan points rather than real solutions. We saw this with his infamous remarks early in his first term of “I won, you lost” to Republicans in Congress. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, three of the most partisan Presidents of the last 50 years, used rhetoric that was inclusive and inviting of their political rivals. The President should follow their example and revert back to his, “there is no blue America, there is no red America, there is only the United States of America” rhetoric.
Additionally, the President should target various Republicans on certain issues to help create a bipartisan approach and show Washington working. For example on immigration reform, perhaps reach out to rising Republican star, Florida’s Marco Rubio to help shepherd comprehensive immigration reform through Congress. On the debt ceiling, reach out to Paul Ryan or even Rand Paul for a solution. George W. Bush famously reached out to Teddy Kennedy on education reform. Ronald Reagan reached out to Illinois Democrat Dan Rostenkowski for tax reform. Lyndon Johnson reached out to Republican Everett Dirksen to get Civil Rights legislation passed. All of these examples gave Americans a feeling that the system was working and things were being done.
For Congress, the first thing that both Parties can do is advocate through their leaders of what they are for rather than just what they are against. Tip O’Neil was the symbol of the Democratic opposition during most of the Reagan years and had high favorable ratings. Much of this was because he advocated what Democrats stood for rather than just that they were against Ronald Reagan. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would be advised to do that. O’Neil also made sure he was seen and heard as much as possible. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would be advised to follow that example. A Congressional leader unlike a President can never suffer from too much exposure.
Congressional leaders of both sides need to rein in their bomb throwers. Nothing gives the appearance of a broken system then the overheated rhetoric of some of the partisans in Congress. Voters just retired one such person in Florida’s Allen West, who at one time seemed to channel Joe McCarthy when he brandished a list of 30 communists in Congress. Florida returned to Congress, Democrat Alan Grayson who is West’s twin if not in ideology but in rhetoric. Democrats would be well advised to admonish Grayson when he goes on his rants in comparing Republicans to Hitler. Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neil would not have hesitated for a second to do so. Senate Democrats need to rein in their own leader Harry Reid, who slashing tongue has led to much dysfunction in Washington. Likewise Republicans have their own contingent of tongue lashers that they need to admonish. Doing this will show the public that the adults are running the government.
Finally, Congress needs to think big and have a ‘Sister Souljah moment. Congress needs to address some of the major issues facing the nation and not be afraid the ideological partisans at both ends of the spectrum. For Republicans that means taking on and standing up to the Tea Party movement. Many Republican legislators are afraid to stand up and vote on issues they believe in for fear that it will antagonize the Tea Party movement and they will be primaried. Likewise for Democrats, there is a feel that if they appear more moderate, Moveon.org and others will challenge them. Taking on these groups as Bill Clinton famously took on Sister Souljah will send a powerful signal to voters.
Yes Washington appears out of touch but it is nothing new. We just see more of it now because of the 24/7 news cycle. But it can be fixed. It has been broken before but each time it has been fixed and great deeds have been done from the Louisiana Purchase to emancipation to the Marshal Plan to civil rights to winning the Cold War. But it needs to get moving on fixing itself.