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Partisanship and pragmatic solutions can coexist

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One week after what President Obama described as a “shellacking” by Republicans in the November 2 congressional elections, a group of partisan Democratic and Republican activists, professionals, consultants, and pundits met in New Orleans, under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). I was honored to be one of the panelists.

The BPC was founded by four former Senate Majority and Minority Leaders (depending on the year): Republicans Howard Baker and Bob Dole, and Democrats Tom Daschle and George Mitchell. Its purpose was and is to bring together top policy, academic, political, and business and civic leaders to develop solutions to core problems facing America that can only be implemented through broad bipartisan consensus.

This post-election conference, held at Tulane University and open to the public, was intended to analyze the implications of the Democrats’ substantial defeat, particularly on the legislative agenda of both parties going forward and the 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns.

The superstar panelists in the program read like a “who’s who” of pundits, pollsters, and political professionals (if you are counting, that is four “p”s)–such as Republican wife Mary Matalin of Democratic husband James Carville (who co-hosted the conference from their home city of New Orleans), former Bush presidential campaign consultant Mark McKinnon, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, White House Clinton political advisor Paul Begala and Bush advisor Ed Gillespie, and TV broadcast journalist, Kathleen Koch, author of “Katrina: How My Mississippi Hometown Lost It All and Found What Mattered.”

So is it possible for partisan party loyalists to discuss bipartisan solutions? The answer is not only yes – it is, in my view mandatory. As co-host and opening speaker James Carville put it (I am paraphrasing), partisanship — loyalty to a party and commitment to its general ideological principles and values — is healthy, even necessary, to American politics.

As partisan Democrat James Carville put it in his opening remarks, far from eschewing partisan “labels” such as “liberal Democrat” or “conservative Republican,” Carville implored his audience at Tulane (as well as on C-Span) that we need principled partisanship — vigorous debate between partisans who deeply believe in their principles. Only out of such a debate can come real solutions — meaning solutions that can attract a broad consensus of our society, encompassing good ideas from the left and the right, or if you will, the 60 yards between the two 20 yard lines.

The genius of the BPC — and the overall theme and reality of the discussions in the Big Easy on November 9 — is to prove that great Republican political leaders, such as Howard Baker and Bob Dole, and Democratic leaders, such as Tom Daschle and George Mitchell, can come together and forge proposed “bipartisan” solutions. BPC commissions have produced templates for health care, economic, budgetary, and energy reforms, to name a few.

I served on a panel about handling crises (surprise!) but that quickly, under the expert moderating skills of Kathleen Koch, became a discussion as to why civility in midst of vigorous partisan debate. This is not only necessary but more common than not, once you turn down the sound of the nightly fare of cable talk shows predominantly seeking audiences on the left from one network vs. another network predominantly catering to more conservative audiences.

So hats off to the BPC and its successful New Orleans conference for proving that bipartisan partisanship is not an oxymoron, but rather, is necessary to produce the broadest consensus as to how to solve our nation’s most intractable problems; and that “civility” and “partisanship” are also not oxymorons.

President Obama in his recent compromise accepting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in return for winning extension of unemployment compensation for a year plus middle-class tax cuts experienced life in the compromise center – where he experienced attacks from the left and the right.

How appropriate to summarize why we need the work of the BPC to continue — the principled liberals and conservatives have no reason to disclaim labels; but ever reason to find areas of compromise to get things done in Washington, even incrementally.

That is the true message of the November elections – and truly what the American people want in the center-left and center-right where most voters are and most solutions can be found.

2010-12-09 00:00:00

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