Monday, March 14, 2011

Congress, spend a weekend in D.C.

Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to congratulate members of Congress who return to their home districts each week.

Sure, it sounds virtuous. "I don't stay in Washington any more than I have to," the line often goes. "I'd rather be home, keeping in touch with the people I represent."

But a couple of veteran observers say this commuter mentality contributes mightily to the animosity and gridlock that keeps Congress from working together for the good of the nation.

Bob Beckel and Cal Thomas co-write a column called "Common Ground" for USA Today. Beckel is a political liberal, Thomas a conservative. The pair were in Charlotte last week to speak to the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club.

They are funny as a pair, the political odd couple. Their put-downs fly as freely as you'd expect on any political talk show (here's a taste from another appearance). But they are deadly serious about their friendship beyond politics, and they make a point of showing that to their audience.

One problem with Washington, they say, is that nobody goes out of their way anymore to build bipartisan friendships. Our elected representatives fly in on Tuesday, vote on bills they often haven't read, then fly out again on Thursday.

There was a time when politicians lived in Washington. They mingled socially, met each other's spouses, talked about their children. They got to know one another as human beings and, in the process, found that common ground. This sometimes led to a common courage to find solutions to the nation's problems, despite their differences.

This notion at first struck me as quaint, if not naive. Could the problems of Congress really be helped with a few more backyard barbecues?

But we all know the penchant people have for demonizing other people who are not like them, people that they don't actually know. In grade school, it leads to bullying. In grownups, it surfaces as ugly episodes of racial and class prejudice.

So, why should we expect anything but a pathetic outcome when politicians wall themselves off from their political opponents? The opponent equals the enemy, someone to be despised and ridiculed. Is it any wonder that each party would rather run the country aground than be caught crafting a compromise?

Of course, they act this way in part because they think this is what voters expect. And that was a parting point from Beckel and Thomas. Change won't come first in Washington. It has to start in places like Charlotte.

Seek out someone you disagree with politically and start a conversation, they said. Keep talking until you understand why that person holds those convictions. Find out what you have in common and find ways to build on that.

It's fashionable these days for members of Congress to hold "town meetings" in their districts. Often, these end up as partisan affairs, bordering on pep rallies. I'm imagining a town meeting of a different kind.

Our representatives are invited to appear together, Democrats and Republicans, alike. The audience consists of pairs of people already having conversations about their political differences -- already seeking common ground.

Would the expectations of that audience be different? Would those voters say, "Sure, go ahead, work with your political adversaries for the sake of the nation?"

Of course, one conversation, or even one town meeting, won't provide enough cover for a politician to safely cross the line and talk. But we have to start somewhere.

Your members of Congress need a new role model if they are to break out of this cycle of destructive politics. And that role model is you.

Reach Rick Thames at or 704-358-5001.


Anonymous said...

Have you ever actually listened to beckel, or read anything he has ranted about ?

Rick Thames said...

I heard him speak for about 45 minutes in Charlotte and I've read some of the work he and Cal Thomas have written together. Both he and Thomas are forthright about their own participation in political wrangling on cable TV and elsewhere. They aren't suggesting an end to the debate. But they say that shouldn't stop both sides from discovering what they have in common and building on it.

Anonymous said...

The reason that politicians don't spend all that much time in DC is because they just have to be there in order to vote the way that they have been told by their big time contributors or their party. We have one of the most corrupt systems of government in the free world and it is getting worse as time goes by. It is a joke when you poor poor fools think that they represent the average person. Money rules congress and even the media who helped convince the public that this country should go to war in Iraq.

Sam said...

OK I'll just drop by the Observer one afternoon. I'm pretty sure that I won't find a conservative in the entire building. Maybe we can just have a little beer summit.

Anonymous said...

"Politics" does not exist anymore.

With obamas "enemy" and "get in the back of the bus" philosophies and the conservatives insistence that people be more responsible for themselves and demanding a reduction in the size of government no matter what.....

there is no win lose or draw with what we have.

Tea party initiate is spot on..throw them ALL out. Start over. The water is so dirty trying to cook with it will just continue the dysentery.

Anonymous said...

What is very sad is that one of first things John Bohner did was cut the work week in the House. they now only work Tuesday, Wednesday and part of Thursday. He said that the 5 day work week under the Dems was too much