No one has figured out how to break the cycle of gridlock and dysfunction in America’s government.
It isn’t for lack of trying.
For years, reformers have been pushing ambitious campaigns to shake up our political system: to limit the influence of money in politics, to end the gerrymandering of congressional districts and to diminish the influence of the extremes in primary elections. Recently, Sen. Tom Coburn suggested that we may need a new Constitutional Convention.
Whatever the virtues of these reforms — and there are many — they can’t fix the one thing that needs to change the most in Washington.
Our leaders need to embrace an attitude where working with the other party to solve problems is seen as a virtue and not a weakness. An attitude where the focus is on finding common ground instead of fomenting conflict.
It’s an attitude that — time and again throughout our history — has paid huge dividends for America. We’ve seen it firsthand.
One of us is a veteran of the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations, and the other served in the Clinton administration. By the logic of today’s Washington, we shouldn’t even be talking with one another.
But we’re friends and partners in a reform effort to get Washington back in the business of solving problems. While we have very different views on many issues, we don’t let that define our relationship. Instead, we focus on what unites us, such as our common work and passion for Latin America and issues of hemispheric collaboration. Or our mutual desire to encourage more educational opportunities and a stronger middle class.
Most importantly, we’ve seen what happens when leaders have an attitude that puts problem solving front and center. We saw it in the 1980s when President Reagan worked with House Speaker Tip O’Neill to lead a reform of the tax code and a rescue of Social Security. And we saw it in the 1990s when President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich worked to balance the budget.
What these leaders showed is that there is no disconnect between having strong political beliefs and a desire to engender more support for those beliefs, and recognizing that leaders must ultimately govern and find a way to work across the aisle.
It was never easy. Like today, there were partisan skirmishes and moments where it looked like the reform efforts would fall apart. But they stayed focused on the end goal, and made the compromises necessary — not to find perfect solutions — but to find solutions that improved on the status quo.
The question is how can we revive this attitude today?
Fortunately, we think the reform group No Labels may have found an answer.
For almost four years now, No Labels has been working to bring Democrats, Republicans and independents together in Congress and across the country around a new politics of problem solving. During that time, No Labels has organized members of Congress into a problem solvers group that eventually featured over 90 members from the House and Senate meeting regularly to build trust across the aisle.
It’s led to real progress, and this group has co-sponsored 18 different pieces of bipartisan legislation, including two that became law. Just as important, the group is slowly moving the conversation within Congress from “how can we defeat the other side?” to “how we can win together?”
There’s still plenty of work to be done. But these are small, important steps. And they have laid the foundation for a much bigger one.
No Labels has now kicked off a yearlong effort to build a new National Strategic Agenda, which will set a vision for where America needs to go and how we get there. Beginning this month, No Labels is holding a number of meetings with members of Congress, state and local leaders as well as business and community leaders to begin forging agreement on four ambitious goals centered on job creation, balancing the budget, retirement security and energy security.
After a year of facilitating meetings and gathering input, No Labels will release the final National Strategic Agenda in New Hampshire in October 2015, just in time to shape the debate for the nascent presidential debate.
Nothing like this has ever been tried before. But what makes us so optimistic is that the campaign to build a National Strategic Agenda takes all the abstractions about bipartisan cooperation and translates them into specific goals, and a specific process for achieving them.
In short, the National Strategic Agenda offers an organized framework for decision making for anyone who wants to embrace a problem-solving attitude.
That is precisely the attitude that voters want.
A recent No Labels poll in New Hampshire revealed that the number one quality voters were looking for in the next president was: “Are they a problem solver?”
Voter attitudes are changing. It’s time for attitudes in Washington to change as well.