As we approach the inauguration of the new President, I think back to 2001 when President Bush was about to take office. I had helped him on education issues in the campaign and would be his Senior Education Adviser in the White House.
But there was more to our story than that. He was Republican. I had been an active Democrat. What was I doing in the picture?
As governor of Texas and then as President, he wanted to improve education dramatically, and he believed that doing so required cooperation and mutual commitment from both Republicans and Democrats.
Of the many education leaders of that era, none did more to improve student achievement than President Bush, and none made the progress on a bipartisan basis better than he.
I don’t want to get mushy about cooperation in government. Both sides hold to different views, for which our system requires that they fight vigorously. Too-easy compromise can take us nowhere. And the nation deserves better than the “tepid water” that too often is the result of everybody’s being happy in the legislative process.
But, as I think about the more significant policies that have moved our nation forward in recent times, most have had support from both sides, built with great effort, leadership, and comity.
My mind goes back to the Civil Rights Act in the Sixties. What a difference it made in the course of history that President Johnson had support from Senator Dirksen and other Republicans.
One remembers President Reagan working with leaders on both sides to make long-term fixes to the Social Security system.
Later, significant tax reform, ADA, welfare reform, and NCLB – none perfect, but all hugely difference-making for the country and responsive to both sides’ interests – passed because each side chose to work with the other.
In the past, no matter how contentious the battle for the presidency, the losing side deferred to the newly elected President in the confirmation of Cabinet members. From 1977-2013, the last six presidents made 109 appointments to Cabinet-level positions. Only six failed approval, all because of ethical issues.
As to Supreme Court nominees, going back to 1975, only one was voted down in the Senate, even with daunting filibuster rules in place. True liberals like Ginsburg and Breyer were confirmed by votes of 96-3 and 87-9, respectively. In Obama’s terms, Sotomayor and Kagan were confirmed by significant, bipartisan margins.
Yet, we’ve recently experienced a severe loss in comity. As House Speaker Paul Ryan has said, “it did not used to be as bad” as it has become. “And it does not have to be this way.” “People with different ideas, they are not traitors. They’re our fellow citizens. We shouldn’t go into the echo chamber where we take comfort in the dogmas and the opinions we already hold.”
I don’t know whether the cause of our current problems is the fractured media that thrive on provoking differences rather than encouraging a coming together. Or, the special interests that have funded the groups and views on the edge and left dry those in the middle. Or, the good people in the middle who either don’t have the stomach for the battle or have simply lost the full interest and commitment needed to make our republic work optimally.
Whatever it is, we must restore comity to our civic life. Yes, we must hold to our principles and fight for what we believe. But, as Speaker Ryan suggests, it’s time for more respect, mutuality, and a shared stake.
As hard as it will be to do, there’s no better time to start than this week when power passes peacefully under our Constitution.
One person has been elected President. He should be given the respect and deference we traditionally accord the President, and we should set high expectations of conduct for him as well.
There will be battles, to be sure, in Congress, the courts, and future elections. But the penchant for permanent trench warfare, which has been increasingly the choice of both sides, must be curbed.
An extended hand – not a fist – is what’s needed. Both sides must work at comity. And we, the people of the United States of America, must insist on it.
The wisdom of our tradition teaches:
“Behold how good and how pleasing if people could sit together in unity.”
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?”