Reflective Politics

April 4th, 2011



The U.S. Constitution requires consensus. It divides power between two houses of Congress and three branches of government. They all have to agree.

And if they don’t — like now? It doesn’t work. “You are not going to solve any big problems without some sort of consensus,” former Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei (N.Y.) said. “That means you have to have bipartisans and moderates. Otherwise one side is going to undo what the other side did.”

Former Republican Rep. Tom Davis (Va.) agreed. “I think the political system is incapable of making good decisions in this environment,” Davis said.

Last month, the two former congressmen met at Third Way for a freewheeling discussion of a dilemma facing Congress: what happened to the moderates? Tom Davis represented Northern Virginia in the House of Representatives for fourteen years until he gave up his seat in 2008. From 1998 through 2002, he chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. Dan Maffei represented the Syracuse area for one term (2009-11). Previously, he served on the staffs of Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.), Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.) and Rep. Charles Rangel (N.Y.).

Davis is president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, an organization that encourages pragmatism. “We started giving money to conservatives,” Davis said, “but initially people were giving our money back. It was bad branding. ‘Oh, he’s a moderate.”’

What does Davis think happened to moderate Republicans? “I would say right now they are in hibernation,” he said. And what does Maffei think happened to moderate Democrats? “They don’t matter much,” Maffei said, adding, “What worries me is the disappearance of conservatives and liberals who are pragmatic. This is a great diverse country, and you should have a Congress that reflects that.”

In a Congress dominated by the extremes, solving problems is not the top priority. Not when compromise can destroy your political career. “John Boehner can go to the White House this afternoon and cut a deal on the budget,” Davis said. “If Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh don’t like it, by the time he gets back to his office, the thing will have blown up. I have talked to Member after Member whose phones will light up on the switchboard if they go off the party line a little bit and get mentioned on some radio show. It’s a very disciplining force.”

In Maffei’s view, “Today, you can’t even have a discussion across party lines and make an offer without having it get out into the press and being asked, ‘Did you really say this?’ You could be dead politically, at least with your base.”

Maffei was a leading supporter of health care reform in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, he sometimes got hammered by liberals in New York. “I never took a policy position they didn’t agree with,” Maffei said. “They heard somebody say that somebody said that I was lobbying against the health care bill. I even got a nice editorial supporting me from the [conservative] New York Post. But it wasn’t true.”

Both former politicians blamed the news media. Actually, the new media. “The media are now so that people are not dealing with the same set of facts,” Davis said. “When we were growing up, there were three television stations. You might not like Walter Cronkite or whoever, but at least they were dealing with the same set of facts. There were filters. Now there is nothing.”

When newspapers were first circulated in London in the 18th century, the impact was immediate: dragon-sightings got further and further from London. The newspapers checked the stories out. Today, the new media are filled with dragon-sightings. “I have seen Obama’s birth certificate from Kenya,” Davis said. “I have seen it from Indonesia. This stuff comes out, it looks real and people believe it.”

According to Maffei, “You hear a lot of people say, ‘I must have read it on the Internet.’ I’m sure when television first came out, a lot of people saw something on television and they thought it was true. When the printing press first came out and they saw something in print, they thought that must have been true. It’s a natural effect.”

The former congressmen noted another problem with the new media: they enable people to see only one side of the issues. “You can go through your entire life now and not see or hear another point of view,” Maffei said. “It’s weird. It’s a big, globalized world, and yet you can turn on the TV, turn on the radio, read the newspaper and never encounter a different view, if that’s what you want.”

Last week, it was reported that the controversial bank bailouts had actually begun to turn a profit for the federal government. In Maffei’s view, however, “People still don’t believe that TARP was a success. Or that we would be in worse shape if we hadn’t done it.”

Davis used the example of government spending. “You go out to the average Joe Six-Pack and he thinks he knows where the money is going,” Davis said. “It’s foreign aid, it’s earmarks, it’s waste and fraud. Well, it’s not. It’s Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. You can’t have an honest discussion about what it really means.”

The whole process turns off moderates. They see politics as the enemy of problem-solving. Maffei said, “A lot of moderates, a lot of independents, are just not participating. They are so turned off by the two sides that it’s difficult for me not to imagine that it is going to continue to be like a parliamentary process, where one side or the other controls the national agenda for a time.”

Davis’s assessment? “I don’t think the electorate has moved a lot over the last 20 or 30 years. But the political activists and the mechanics and the procedures have driven the moderates out.” The incentives are for politicians to do whatever it takes to survive in a highly polarized environment, even if that makes it difficult to solve problems. “The incentives are to come back,” Davis said. “They do what they have to do to stay in office. For a lot of these guys, it’s the best job they ever had.”