The “Aspen Curse” & the Sorry State of Bipartisanship

I've never been so devastated by the defeat of a conservative Republican to the U.S. Senate as I was this Tuesday.

It's not just that Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning is a great guy: a warm, humble, often hilarious teddy bear of a man who's the type of person you'd be proud to represent you in Congress.

It's also because Bruning was our last great hope to break the infernal “Aspen Curse.”

Never heard of the “Aspen Curse”? Don't worry; only a few dozen sorry sorts have been tracking its metastasization… until now.

The “Aspen Curse” refers to a plague that's infected the membership of the Inaugural Class of the Aspen Institute's Rodel Fellowship program. The initiative was launched in 2005, with a stated goal “to enhance our democracy by identifying and bringing together the nation's most promising young political leaders … committed to sustaining the vision of a political system based on thoughtful and civil bipartisan dialogue; and to help America's brightest young leaders achieve their fullest potential in public service.”

Eighteen young mid-level elected officials– nine Democrats and nine Republicans from across the country — joined together for a series of events, seminars, and visits to places ranging from New Orleans to Beijing to Jerusalem. (Don't worry — your tax dollars were not involved.) We studied, debated, argued, drank, told jokes and built some long-lasting friendships. And when our program ended, we promised to use our bipartisan spirit and relationships to advance the country's interests as we moved toward higher office.

And then… the Curse. One by one, we ran for more prominent elected positions. And one by one, we lost.

Eva Moskowitz (D-New York City) and Karen Carter (D-New Orleans) lost races for mayor. Jason Atkinson (R-OR) and I failed to cross the finish line in gubernatorial campaigns. Michael Steele (R-MD), Tom Kean (R-NJ), Trey Grayson (R-KY), Andrew Romanoff (D-CO), Robin Carnahan (D-MO) and now Jon Bruning (R-NE) struck out in their U.S. Senate bids.

In several cases, bad luck intervened: Steele, Kean and Carnahan ran into partisan-wave elections. Atkinson was injured in a gun accident. I looked like a candidate for student government.

But in a few instances, the spirit of bipartisanship that the Aspen Rodel program embodied was seen as a liability. Rand Paul's supporters used Trey Grayson's cosmopolitan worldview and even his bipartisan relationship with me as an attack talking point during their 2010 GOP Senate primary. And this month, Jon Bruning's opponents leveraged his Aspen fellowship as a sledgehammer to attack him as “too establishment,” “too moderate” and “too bipartisan.”

Now, I'm not asking you to shed any tears on our behalf.

We were all blessed to hold any public office. Furthermore, for many of my colleagues, our second acts have involved exciting new ventures into developing bipartisan solutions for our nation's toughest problems.

Eva Moskowitz founded and leads the fastest growing network of charter schools in New York, and has become a nationally recognized leader on education reform. Trey Grayson directs Harvard's Institute of Politics, training the next generation of political leaders in civility and bipartisanship. Tom Perez serves in the uber-important position of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Obama Administration. In addition to a wide variety of projects aimed at promoting sound public policy, Jason Atkinson, Andrew Romanoff and Michael Steele have all joined my bipartisan venture, The Recovering Politician, an online forum that promotes civil dialogue, discussion, and problem-solving of the key issues of the day.

And I'm proud to have helped co-found No Labels, a national grassroots movement of more than 500,000 Democrats, Republicans and Independents who believe that we must on occasion put aside our party's labels to do what's right for the nation.

Indeed, it is through organizations like No Labels that we can once again empower bipartisan leaders such as my Aspen classmates to win public office and use their positions to enhance the common good. Currently, the political system's perverse incentives promote hyper-partisanship and policy paralysis. Through passage of No Labels' 12-point Make Congress Work plan — highlighted by our No Budget, No Pay proposal that would deny Congresspeople their paychecks when they fail to pass a budget — our elected leaders would feel much more compelled to reach across the aisle to enact policies that are in the country's interests.

While I'm not getting back into the arena, the good news is that many of my Aspen colleagues will soon try again. Moreover, the Aspen Curse did indeed miss a few of our classmates: Scott Avedisian remains the popular mayor of Warwick, RI, and Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) and Erik Paulsen (R-MN) made it to Congress and are considered some of the Capitol's brightest stars. And, of course, our most famous classmate, Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), has an extraordinary future ahead of her when she fully recovers from her wounds.

Indeed, it is Gabby's example that motivates us all. The attempt on her life motivated my classmates to reconnect and join forces to promote civility and bipartisan action among the general public. As we wrote then:

We ask you to do your part as well. As a tribute to Gabby, attend the next political town hall meeting in your community. Communicate with your elected officials. Ask your school board to include more civic education. Stand up to those who stoke division for their own selfish ends. Participate in our magnificent, pluralistic society — without fear.

This message still resonates today. This isn't about a small group of us that were lucky to be part of the Aspen program. It's up to all Americans who are fed up with politics as usual to help break the Aspen Curse, to help defeat the larger political toxicity that infects our democratic process.

By working together to promote bipartisan progress we can turn this democracy around. Please join us today.


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