Kennedy, Warren, and the Democrats: How About Some Conflict Resolution?

01/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Democratic leadership may be prepared to ride out the current storms over Caroline Kennedy and Rick Warren. That would be a mistake. This is a time to heal wounds, not create new ones.

If the Party wants to demonstrate a new and inclusive style, however, this is a real opportunity. Why not use some the principles of conflict resolution outlined in the U. S. Navy's conflict training program? They include: Think Before Reacting, Use Direct Communications, Look For Interests, Focus On the Future, and find Options for Mutual Gain.

Think Before Reacting

It's not hard to see the logic behind both the Warren and Kennedy decisions. And Washington leaders may be tempted to dismiss the current backlash as the shrill sound of the blogosphere. But does the Democratic Party really want to assume power with a wounded base? Before dismissing the objections, the leadership should study them.

Regarding Warren, the Obama team hopefully understands that the cries they're hearing from the LGBT community are cries of anguish. They've caused genuine pain with this decision, and they need to address it - not only because they need to unify the country, but because it's the right thing to do.

And as for Ms. Kennedy, she needs to understand that some of the opposition she's facing seems to be based on two genuine concerns. One is that she may not be not tough or experienced enough for the job. The other is that politics in this country is dominated by a tiny elite. She will remain under fire until she considers the merit of these arguments.

I have to think before reacting too, in the case of Ms. Kennedy's opponents. While I don't have strong feelings about her nomination, I've been offended at some of the blatantly sexist comments from people who oppose her - especially when those same people were rightfully outraged at sexist remarks about Hillary Clinton. And I've been baffled by Clinton supporters who insist that only someone who has previously run for office should be considered. Chuck Schumer and other Democratic leaders forced career politician Nita Lowey to step aside in New York's 2000 Democratic Senatorial primary. Lowey was considered a shoo-in until she was forced to yield to someone who, like Caroline Kennedy, had a famous last name and had never been a candidate.

But reflection makes it clear that there are valid emotions driving these comments, too - anger at our exclusionary politics and the desire for fair play. Some of the same reactions are behind Democratic resistance to Hillary Clinton's selection for the State Department, too (although I support her nomination.)

Use Direct Communications

Ms. Kennedy should immediately start taking questions from the press. And it might be a good idea if she sat down face to face with some of the people opposed to her nomination. That way she can address their concerns directly. She would also be demonstrating that she has some of the necessary qualifications for the job: the ability to take flak, and the willingness to parley with her opponents.

Regarding the Inauguration, the Obama team should consider making direct contact with members of the GLBT community and asking what can be done to make the situation better for them. If Rick Warren will sit down with gay and lesbian leaders, he should do that too. Best of all would be a sit-down with all interested parties.

Look For Common Interests

There are a number of shared interests at play here. Rick Warren has been highly effective in combating AIDS and has taken positions on civil unions that represent a step up from James Dobson. Yet he wants to inherit the Dobson mantle, so he's sent mixed messages at best. Gays and lesbians are being demonized in the evangelical community. Are there ways that Warren and GLBT leaders can work together - maybe in fighting workplace discrimination against gays? If they are to communicate effectively, however, Rev. Warren and other need to understand that civil rights are fundamental and non-negotiable.

Caroline Kennedy shares goals with many other progressives. She can use her communications strategy with the progressive community to outline those shared goals and develop a plan for reaching them. One already comes to mind (see below.)

Find Opportunities for Mutual Gain

Ms. Kennedy's backers argue that her fundraising ability makes her a good choice. That may be true, but it also illustrates a major flaw in our political system. So why doesn't Caroline Kennedy pledge that she will dedicate her public career to campaign finance reform if she becomes a Senator? And not just marginal reform, but full public funding of campaigns for higher office.

Regarding Rick Warren, why not invite one more minister to speak at the Inauguration? I have someone in mind: Rev. Gene Robinson. Gene Robinson is the openly gay Episcopal bishop whose appointment has caused a rift with anti-gay Third World Anglican communities. I'm not gay and can't speak for the community, but that might help. And if Rev. Robinson's impact on the Third World makes him too controversial, there are other gay clergy who could be asked.

One thing is certain: If this Inauguration is to be "inclusive," as we're being told, a little more "including" of the gay community is called for.

Focus On the Future

Regarding Rick Warren, it's clear by now that reconciliation and unification are part of President-elect Obama's personality. That's a plus in my book, not a minus, and I've defended him for it against others on the Left. But Ezra Klein gets it right when he says, regarding the invocation, that "the tolerance Obama is asking for not from Warren. It's from the LGBT community, and women. He is asking them to be tolerant of Warren's intolerance." In his invocation, Rick Warren can reach out to those with whom he disagrees, just as Obama has reached out to him with this invitation.

Caroline Kennedy has been staking out a claim to education as her primary issue. That's a good start, but a broader agenda - and more active one-on-one engagement - might convince skeptics that she has a vision of the future they share. She needs to make some forward-looking pledges, and stick to them.

Can these conflict resolution principles heal the rifts in the Democratic Party? It's hard to know. But it would be inspiring to see them used. Everybody would win in the long run - and maybe sooner than that.

RJ Eskow blogs when he can at: