Policy and The Partisan Divide: The Price of Gridlock

Source Organization: Pew Charitable Trusts

Speaker: Rebecca W. Rimel

Venue: Commonwealth Club in San Francisco


11/01/2004 - For more than a century, the Commonwealth Club has been an oasis of civic-mindedness and civility. In an era of sound-bites and 30-second television ads, you give your members, and all those listening on the radio, a chance to hear from the world’s most important leaders and to see, up close, what makes them tick.

I am deeply honored to be here.

Over the past several months, almost every presidential contender made his way to this podium. Now, after a grueling campaign, we have a winner – and for the president, the real work will begin.

President Bush will have to reconfigure his White House staff, re-appoint or change the make-up of his Cabinet, work to implement his policy proposals, and prepare his inaugural speech. But all these tasks pale in comparison to the most important job facing our President: uniting our divided nation.

Politics may be war by other means, but it still leaves wounds that are slow to heal and grudges that are not forgiven. This past campaign was fierce – the choice was stark, the rhetoric was heated, and the passions on both sides were inflamed. The closeness of the results only show that our nation is deeply divided – and if you dig further, you find that the differences go beyond red and blue states.

The Pew Research Center has done extensive polling of the electorate headed into this year’s election. Here is some of what it found: There is a huge divide on issues of race -- with a majority of Republicans feeling that the nation has gone too far in pushing equal rights, while only one-third of Democrats feel that to be the case. Nearly half of all whites agree that the nation has gone too far, while about a quarter of African-Americans say the same.

When it comes to immigration, more than half of those who only have a high school diploma tell our pollsters that immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values. Only about a quarter of those with a college education agree.

Also, the media environment is increasingly fractionalized with various segments of the population turning to different sources for news, including the Internet, newspapers, network and cable TV. In addition, more and more people see the media as slanted with as many people saying it’s biased as say that it’s not.

These divides are real – and are reflected in where people live, go to school, what movies they see, and what music they listen to. In a post election poll just released, the Pew Research Center further explored the presidential campaign and election. In some cases, the results reflect unified opinion, in others, diverse views.

  • On the upside, 86 percent of voters said they learned enough about the candidates to make informed choices.
  • And on the downside, 72 percent said there was more mudslinging than in past elections double the number who said this in 2000.
  • On the issue of “moral values”— which has provided ample fodder for the news over the last few weeks—the Pew study found that there is great diversity of opinion. While, “moral values” is indeed a top-tier issue for voters, when asked to define what they mean by the phrase, there was a range of answers:
    • 44 percent defined it in terms of social issues such as abortion and gay marriage,
    • 23 percent suggested it refers to the personal characteristics of the candidates – are they honest, do they have integrity,
    • 18 percent mentioned religion, Christianity, God or the Bible,
    • and 17 percent said it was about traditional values of “right and wrong.”
So we agree that we had enough information to make our decision in the voting booth and we agree that the candidates were more negative than ever. But when it comes to defining the reasoning behind our votes, we have a great diversity of views. Of course, throughout our history, diversity has been one of our country’s greatest strengths. And going forward, we need to continue to harness the positive potential of our diversity.

And, that is why, now more than ever, it is critical that we begin to look past what divides us – and instead focus on what unites us. We have to stop seeing every election and policy battle as a winner-take-all contest. We have to stop this trend where sore losers are unwilling to work with the other side, and sore winners are equally determined to shut out those they defeated.

We are all in this together: rich and poor, English speakers and non, East coast and West, Republicans and Democrats. To move our country forward…to tackle the great issues of the day, we have to accommodate each other – and we have to compromise.

I know that “compromise,” to some, is a dirty word…I am not suggesting abandoning one’s core values. What I am talking about is an openness to other’s ideas and issues, and the understanding that we don’t always get all that we want…that in a democracy, we sometimes have to be happy with a half of loaf…that we cannot allow “perfection to be the enemy of the good.”

Our greatest leaders have understood this – ever since the founding of our republic.

There’s a great story about one of the earliest debates in our nation’s history. In June of 1790, the two top members of George Washington’s Cabinet ran into each other outside the President’s office in the nation’s temporary capital – New York City. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson saw that Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton looked, as he put it, “somber, haggard, and dejected beyond comparison.”

What was troubling Hamilton was that his plan to have the federal government assume the war debts of the states was being blocked by the most powerful man in Congress – James Madison.

Madison believed that Hamilton’s plan would favor wealthy bankers over Revolutionary War veterans and common farmers. Hamilton argued that America would never grow economically unless it got on secure financial footing. The debate was stuck – and in these early days of the Republic, when so much was uncertain – this was particularly dangerous.

Thomas Jefferson knew that without some kind of breakthrough the new government could easily “burst and vanish.”

So Jefferson invited both Hamilton and Madison to come for Sunday dinner at his small living quarters in lower Manhattan. There together – these three men of strong will and fierce patriotism – made a compromise. Madison would not stand in the way of Hamilton’s financial plan –- if the terms were made more favorable, and if Hamilton agreed to support Madison’s proposal that the new capital of the United States would be carved out of swamp land –- near President Washington’s estate of Mt. Vernon.

Soon after, Jefferson wrote to James Monroe, “If this plan of compromise does not take place, I fear one infinitely worse.” But the compromise did hold. Congress passed both Hamilton’s debt plan and a plan to build the capital on the Potomac. Though neither side got everything they wanted – both had to give up on things they cared about deeply. This agreement affected the very course of our nation’s history. The compromise carried them and the Republic forward.

Looking back, it is no exaggeration to say that Washington DC was, literally, built on compromise… But, today, compromise is seen as weakness, not leadership.

I am afraid that if we do not work to bridge our differences, then the partisan gridlock that has frozen our nation will grow deeper – and we will bear the costs of this inaction with some of our greatest looming problems going unanswered.

Imagine, for a moment, our nation in 20 years time if our citizenry remains as disengaged – and special interests remain as engaged – as they are now. We’d have a democracy that responds to the particular interests of the few over the pressing demands of the many…a society increasingly alienated from its government and each other.

Imagine an America 20 years from now if we don’t do something to bring retirement security to more Americans. The middle class as we know it would disappear…poverty rates for the elderly could surge from 10 percent today to as high as 50 percent…the drain on our treasury would be overwhelming.

And imagine 20 or 40 years from now if we fail to stem global climate change. Rising temperatures would turn fertile fields fallow and plunge rich coastline under water…our quality of life would suffer as would the health of our people – and those around the world. I know this sounds like a lot of gloom and doom, but I am optimistic that with thoughtful, wise leadership from our elected leaders –and our citizens – that we will choose a different path.

That is why The Pew Charitable Trusts has been working with our partners to gather data, educate, enable, and – at times – fight for change on issues that matter most to the long-term health and happiness of the American people.

We seek to get beyond the stale debates -- and build broad coalitions. We seek to leverage our dollars to have the biggest impact on a defined problem. Our work is ambitious, yet feasible; bold, but realistic. If we don’t have at least a 50-50 chance at success, we won’t take it on. And if we can’t find a way to build a bridge to both sides of an issue, we won’t engage on it. An opportunity for consensus is the foundation for our success.

I want to touch on some of the big challenges our nation faces and that we can’t begin to address until we focus on the ties that bind rather than the differences that divide us. Then, I am eager to take your questions.

First and foremost, the biggest obstacle facing the long-term health of our democracy is our disengagement from it. While there was much interest in this year’s election and an increase in turnout to perhaps its highest since 1968, 40 percent of eligible voters still did not cast a ballot on November 2nd.

While a record 21 million young people voted this year, nearly half of eligible young voters didn’t bother to show up. Ever since our founding, The Pew Charitable Trusts has been guided by the knowledge that when citizens check out from democracy, our society suffers. As one of our founders, J. Howard Pew, said five decades ago: “As freedom is our most precious national asset, I am convinced that apathy – indifference – is our greatest national sin.”

We need the enthusiasm, insights, intellect, and involvement of our young people if we are going to address the issues that will define their future. We need to re-engage them so that they learn to build instead of berate.

That is why we supported the New Voters Project, the largest grassroots youth voter mobilization campaign in history. This non-partisan effort registered more than 350,000 young voters in 6 battleground states – and in the final weeks before the election, encouraged 750,000 young voters to go to the polls.

And that’s why Pew has been a leading advocate for campaign finance reform -- because kids and Americans of all ages won’t get engaged if they feel like special interests with deep pockets control the debate.

Over the past seven years, we have funded efforts to shine a bright light on the flow of money into campaigns, whether tracking television advertising dollars, “soft money” or state campaign contributions. Our grantees educated and advocated as the bills moved to the floors of both the Senate and House and, upon passage, to Conference Committee.

Throughout the debates, the reform argument drew heavily on the facts, figures and research compiled by at least 10 of our partners. And when the law was challenged in the Supreme Court, we funded its defense – and won.

Although the McCain-Feingold bill is now law, we cannot relent in our efforts to open up our system to ordinary Americans. This year, for instance, we saw how huge well-funded interests can circumvent the law. We need to put aside our partisan differences and work together to further reform our system, because if citizens don’t believe in its fairness – that in America each person has a voice and a vote – the basic values of our democracy are called into question.

That brings me to another huge issue that is stuck in partisan gridlock, retirement security.

We face an enormous challenge in the coming years as the children of the Sixties, enter their 60’s and begin to retire. As, Elizabeth Warren details in her book, The Two-Income Trap, skyrocketing health care, college, and housing costs are outpacing family income at an astounding rate. She predicts that by the end of the decade, one in seven families in this country could go bankrupt.

In addition, half of all households nearing retirement age have only ten thousand dollars or less in a 401(k) or IRA – and it has profound implications for a generation nearing retirement and those who must care for them.

Meanwhile, the political debate about retirement security is held hostage between those who want to radically reform Social Security and those who want to keep the status quo.

We believe that if this gridlock continues, the viability and vibrancy of our middle class is at risk. If after 40 years on the job you have no pension and unaffordable health care, then your middle class lifestyle will disappear the moment you stop working.

This issue demands immediate attention. That is why Pew decided to focus on an area in which we can build a consensus and make a difference today. Our Retirement Security Project is promoting practical steps to boost retirement savings, such as: making it easier for workers to enroll in 401(k) plans, not penalizing low income workers for having retirement assets, and changing IRS rules so that a portion of your tax refund can go right into an IRA.

These steps may seem small, but their potential impact is large. We want results and we need them now, so we selected steps that both sides of the debate can agree on. We must start preparing for a more secure future for every American.

A third area that, unfortunately, is mired in partisan gridlock is global climate change. Here, the sides are stubbornly dug in.

There are those who oppose any environmental regulation, no matter what. There are those who oppose involvement with any international treaty or effort. And there are those who believe that changes in our energy policy must be addressed if we are to keep our country prosperous and the world stable.

These different groups have long been at loggerheads – and little has been done in this area, especially by the United States. Yet, just as opposition to the Kyoto Protocol was at its highest, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change announced the formation of its Business Environmental Leadership Council. Today, it has 38 CEOs, including Alcoa, BP, DuPont, IBM, Pacific Gas & Electric and Toyota. These leaders are advocating for action on global climate change because they believe it is right for the environment and good for the economy and in the best interest of business.

It is our belief that there are solutions that companies and governments can adopt to curb climate change that are practical and feasible. One such effort is the cap-and-trade system in which market forces are used to reduce the overall emissions of greenhouse gases. Joe Lieberman and John McCain have crossed the aisle to introduce this legislation in the Senate. It is backed by 44 Senators from both parties, and the companion bill in the House has 81 co-sponsors from both sides of aisle.

Climate change is an environmental, health and economic issue – and because of that, there is common ground to be found. Our challenge is to seize it now and implement solutions because the cost of inaction is devastating.

Thirty-six years ago, Robert Kennedy addressed the Commonwealth Club. It was before he was a candidate for President. It was the beginning of the last year of his life.

Kennedy surveyed the divisions within America and the crises it faced at home and abroad, and looking to the coming election, he said: “Entangled abroad and embattled at home, America searches for answers, not just to specific problems, but to the great question, What do we stand for? Where do we want to go?”

We have held our election. We have decided who we want to lead us these next four years. But those bigger questions are still unanswered.

What kind of democracy do we want and how do we engage more people in it?

What do we want to do about the coming retirement of the Baby Boomers – and then, eventually, of their kids?

Where do we stand on the issue of global climate change, the greatest threat to the future productivity and the livability of our planet?

What do we mean when we talk about “equal opportunity for all” and “spreading freedom around the world?”

These questions are large ones – and it will take a dialogue across the generations and the partisan divide to answer them. It will take overcoming political polarization. It will take ending the division of our country into red and blue, and seeing that we are all part of the same red, white, and blue.

In government, we need leaders who are willing and able to put ideological absolutes aside, reach across the aisle, and get things done. In our communities, we need people who are willing and able to leave the comfortable confines of their own crowd and meet, mingle, and talk with those that don’t think exactly as they do.

And throughout our country, we all need to be engaged, to be committed, and to be willing to put the good of the many ahead of the benefit of a few.

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.

Rebecca W. Rimel is the President and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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