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David J. Skorton

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My Hope for November 7

Posted: 11/01/2012 4:10 pm

Fiscal Cliff

In the wake of the devastating visit of Hurricane Sandy to our shores -- and the action of federal, state and local governments to help people rebuild lives and get communities back on their feet -- it is more than a hypothetical exercise to contemplate the realities of governing after next week's presidential election.

Like many other Americans, I have made my choices and will exercise my right to cast a ballot on November 6. My father, who was an immigrant and naturalized citizen, taught me that voting was a precious right, and I hope that every eligible voter will go to the polls on Tuesday.

This presidential campaign has been extraordinarily divisive and combative. Even more important than the election outcome, in my view, is whether we choose, as a country and as individuals, to leave partisan politics behind and begin to cooperate in the hard work of governing. Frankly, the prospects do not look good.

In their book The Spirit of Compromise (2012, p. 34-35), Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson note:

When parties enter into negotiations in bad faith, deliberately misrepresent their opponents' positions, and refuse to cooperate even on matters on which they could find agreement, they undermine the relationships of respect that are necessary to sustain any morally justifiable democracy under the modern conditions of deep and persistent disagreement.

All too often in recent years, candidates have failed to make the transition from campaigning to governing once the election is over. They dig in their heels and "stand on principle," avoiding "give and take" negotiations and actions that are necessary to get things done. And, thus, we all lose.

For one critical example, unless Congress acts quickly after the election, automatic, across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic spending will be implemented starting in 2013 and extending until 2021, as a result of the "sequestration" provision of the Budget Control Act that Congress passed in 2011 to keep the U.S. government from defaulting on its debt. This provision was triggered last November when the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed to reach agreement on how to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget. So even though it would have been in everyone's best interest to allow legislators discretion in how and what to cut, we may be stuck with a process that, according to many economists, will push the country back into recession.

Why has it become so difficult for our elected leaders to act in ways that would clearly be better than the status quo for all concerned?

As many critics have noted, the campaigning mindset, the need for elected officials to start raising money for their next campaign the minute they take the oath of office, gerrymandering districts to create safe seats for the party in power, and the subordination of information to opinion on Cable TV and in the blogosphere polarize -- and poison -- politics, leaving little space for bipartisanship.

Is there a way to build a less adversarial mindset into the political process? Suggestions include campaign finance reform, term limits, lengthening the tenure in office to eliminate the "perpetual campaign," a congressional work schedule that would keep politicians in Washington D.C. long enough to build relationships on both sides of the aisle, and "open primaries" to keep party activists from having undue influence on the nominating process.

I am convinced that we also need to improve the education for citizenship we offer students, beginning in the K-12 years and extending through college. Unfortunately, many students do not know how bills become laws, the basics of our system of checks and balances, or the critical role compromise has played throughout our history -- and must continue to play in our democracy. They need to hone the analytical and communication skills that will enable them to present cogent arguments and analyze and interpret disparate points of view. They need to understand the tension between standing on principle -- which often is a good thing -- and being inflexible, which often is a recipe for deadlock. Most important, like all of us, they need to develop the ability to advocate for ideas without ignoring or dismissing out of hand those who think otherwise. And because the skills needed for effective civic engagement can be enhanced by experiential learning, we need to develop more and better opportunities for young men and women to participate in activities such as Model Congress, Model UN, and student government and in service learning courses that include opportunities to work with local, state and federal governments.

Compromise in the era of the perpetual campaign and rigid adherence to a party line will be difficult to achieve. It is messy, time-consuming, often frustrating, and subjects the "compromiser" to accusations of waffling. But little can be accomplished without it.

Once the election is over -- and regardless of who wins -- let's take concrete steps to build a political structure and a political culture that will enable us to address the real and shared challenges we face in avoiding the fiscal cliff and in so many other aspects of American life.

 
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