Does “Better Politics” need a Movement?

By Pam Kondé, Director, Sosne Kondé Policy Solutions

January 23, 2015

1. Better Politics

As Sosne Kondé Policy Solutions focuses on working together, building consensus, and advocating for commonsense policy solutions, we are thrilled to highlight the President’s inspirational language during the 2015 State of the Union on working together across the aisle. “Better politics,” he called it.

So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up forarguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision. Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different. Understanda better politics isnt one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives. A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America. If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have argumentsbut lets make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country. That’s a better politics. That’s how we start rebuilding trust. That’s how we move this country forward. That’s what the American people want. That’s what they deserve.

— President Barack Obama, January 20, 2015

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Words are only as strong as the actions that accompany them however. President Obama promoted bipartisanship while simultaneously mocking Republicans with veto threats, daring them to live at the minimum wage, and dismissing Keystone, among other not-so-bipartisan actions. The President’s impromptu comment about “winning two elections,” after the Republicans applauded that he did not have any more campaigns, demonstrates the competitive paradigm at work on Capitol Hill all too well.

For their part, the Republicans didn’t promote bipartisanship at all. Having just won the majority in both the Senate and the House, they share no similarly conciliatory approach. Their focus in their response speeches was on moving forward the agenda of the “new Republican Congress you elected.” They see winning the majority as a mandate that frees them from working across the aisle, and they blame the President for his “failure to cooperate.” In the official Republican response, Sen Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) commented that, when they send tax code simplification and other legislation to the President, “we’re calling on him to cooperate and pass them.”

After the State of the Union, commentators on The Charlie Rose Show described the problem. Jon Meacham, author, commentator, and Random House executive editor, commented:

[President Obama] gave a very shrewd diagnosis of partisan America circa 2015.

  • He talked about the base
  • He talks about fundraising
  • He talked about the media environment
  • He talks about cable shows – talking at each other

… [H]e had a full-on intellectual appreciation of the problem, but the solution has eluded him … It’s eluded all of us. The truly great president … will be the one who can actually, to use the President’s phrase, break out of the tired pattern.”

– Jon Meacham on the Charlie Rose Show, January 21, 2015

So, to summarize, our political system has incapacitated our governance system. Both teams are too focused on wins over the other. They lack tangible impetus to work together to achieve their core objectives.

2. Outside Pressure Required

On the same show, Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian, characterized the missing link precisely:

“It seems to me that the system itself has hardened …. Which I think the political culture has over these last decades, even more difficult during this period of time … maybe it’s not possible to ask for an individual to change it … that’s the kind of thing where you need pressure coming from the outside in to force Washington to take action. Where when you think about when real social change has taken place in America … It’s not when the guy at the top says … “Oh, let’s do these great things!’ It’s when you’ve got a civil rights movement, it’s when you’ve got an anti-slavery movement, it’s when you’ve got the unions that were strong. It’s that failure that we haven’t got pushing up from the … He was a community organizer, he knows that, but that doesn’t mean that that group is there. He was there … hopefully trying to change the political culture … but without the outside groups mobilizing to push in on Washington on both parties from the outside in, I’m not sure what anybody could do until that gets stronger …

– Doris Kearns-Goodwin on the Charlie Rose Show, January 21, 2015

She also captured the essence of Sosne Kondé Policy Solutions’ work. We bring people together, and we start movements.

3. Finding Common Ground

Substantively, are the two major political parties really so far apart? Is there common ground? Both the Democratic President and the Republican Responses used similar language:

  • Opportunity
  • Hard work
  • Responsibility
  • Fairness
  • Middle Class
  • US Competitiveness
  • Job Growth

Republicans’ and Democrats’ nuanced definitions, analysis, and prioritization demonstrate their different visions of the role of government. At the core, however, they use similar language because they share common purpose. Our leaders all agree on one common goal – a thriving America, where individuals have the opportunity to work hard, raise their families, and live well. That’s a suitable starting place for collaboration and problem solving.

4. Getting Started

As Doris Kearns Goodwin commented on Monday night, the political leaders in Washington cannot do it alone. They need “outside groups mobilizing to push in on Washington on both parties.” The system has so hardened that they need a movement akin to the civil rights movement.

“[W]e are still more than a collection of red states and blue states.  We are the United States of America.”

– President Barack Obama, State of the Union, January 21, 2015

Our political leaders started the conversation, but they need us to provide the political will to make it happen.  It takes more than a few hashtags on social media. It takes a strategic, coordinated movement to promote commonsense policy solutions and bipartisan cooperation. It takes outside-the-box thinking, perseverance, and grit.

Let’s choose an issue where Democrats and Republicans have already found common language and commonsense goals, and let’s start a movement.  Why wait?  Let’s start right now!

Contact Sosne Kondé Policy Solutions to help provide that “pressure from the outside in.”