After several days listening to speakers at the Association of Opinion Journalists (AOJ) conference in Orlando, Fla., in mid-September, I’ve come to a different conclusion. We don’t need politicians. We need ex-politicians.
When it comes to attacking our major problems, the current crop of politicians in Washington (and Montgomery, for that matter) is locked down by timidity.
Of course, silly arguments meant to score cheap political points are another story. The volume grows ever louder and the rhetoric coarsens to a degree where very little of what comes out of the mouth of a politician is genuinely shocking anymore.
Our politicians color very neatly within the established party lines. It’s becoming rarer to find the hybrids, those who break free of the rigid ideological chains. Money has become the lifeblood of politics, which means fundraising sits in the driver’s seat and compromise might not even make it onto the bus.
Looking for evidence? Examine the slow-motion movement (non-movement?) on the nation’s most pressing problems.
Exactly four years after the nation’s economic collapse, the federal government has yet to forcefully protect consumers from the Wall Street giants whose irresponsible tricks played an outsized role in the crisis. Unemployment remains distressingly high, yet our politicians won’t work together on remedies.
Then there’s Obamacare. Republicans turned the drive for health-care reform into a with-us-or-against-us proposition. In the eyes of most Republicans, the 2010 Affordable Care Act was “the single worst piece of legislation to come out of Congress,” as Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley so succinctly put it. How can you compromise if that’s your starting point?
When the Simpson-Bowles plan for lowering the nation’s budget deficit was released in late 2010, it was hard to find very many Democrats or Republicans willing to give it a warm embrace. Everybody, it seemed, was too busy working the angles.
It’s a massive waste of time, said one of the AOJ convention speakers, Mickey Edwards. The ex-Republican congressman from Oklahoma has written a new book, The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.
Speaking in Orlando, Edwards mocked Washington’s partisan arrangement, which divides even the most mundane parts of legislating into R’s and D’s. Ever notice that there are two lecterns in the chambers of the House of Representatives — one for Republicans and another for Democrats? In what other setting would we do that, Edwards asked.
“We have allowed the political parties to control this country and our system,” Edwards said.
Jim Bacchus, a former Democratic congressman from Florida, said, “America cannot lead unless we have a politics for grownups.”
“The people,” Bacchus added, “must demand more of politics.”
And so it went, as other former members of Congress took their turn at the lectern — there was only one lectern, I should point out. Each spoke with disdain of how the nation’s politics are failing us.
Well, sure. Who doesn’t want a political system that rises above the current tenor of “Oh, yeah, well so’s your old man?”
A little research reveals that none of these ex-congressmen served their terms in office with their mouths duct-taped. Their strongest advocacy for something better has come after leaving elected office. It seems that a little time and space away from Congress was required to reveal just how bad things are.
So, we’re left with few solutions to our no-compromises dysfunction. Either bring back the ex-politicians to serve as a council of wise elders — Alabama could happily nominate former congressmen Glen Browder and Bob Riley to fill seats at the table — or tell the current congressmen they have two options: Start governing like an ex-politician with nothing to lose and no deep-pocketed contributors to protect, or prepare to become an actual ex-politician.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.