THE BLOG
07/11/2011 01:11 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2011

John Boehner's No Henry Clay, but I Blame the System

For my maiden political stump speech, I faced a daunting challenge.

I had not yet turned 30 years old, looked 22, and was desperately trying to convince a group of good-ole-boy county chairs that I was qualified to serve in the US Congress.

I decided to address the 800-pound elephant head-on: I noted that my hometown's (Lexington, Kentucky) favorite son, Henry Clay, was only 29 when he was elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 19th century.

Of course, I was setting the crowd up for a joke. I pointed to my silver-haired friend in the front of the room, Terry McBrayer -- a popular former state legislator, gubernatorial candidate, and state party chair -- and told the crowd that Terry had warned me not to make the Clay comparison:

"Jonathan, I knew Henry Clay.  I served with Henry Clay.  And you're no Henry Clay."

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A few weeks ago, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Clay's ascension to the highest legislative position in the country.  Three of Clay's successors (Dennis Hastert, Nancy Pelosi, and John Boehner) flew to Lexington to pay tribute. Reflecting on Clay's extraordinary domestic diplomacy in the decades prior to the Civil War -- earning him the nickname "The Great Compromiser" -- Speaker Boehner remarked, "There was no one person more responsible for holding our union together than Henry Clay."

I reflected on Boehner's comments this past weekend. Our Union today is much too strong to worry about the existential threat posed in Clay's era. But as we stare into the oncoming tsunami of potential credit default for the first time in the nation's history -- and as we watch Democrats and Republicans so bitterly divided that they are making a seemingly impossible impasse quite plausible -- we sure could use a Henry Clay right about now.

And John Boehner is no Henry Clay.

This past Saturday evening, Boehner pulled the plug on this era's great compromise: a proposal to trim $4 trillion from the national debt by both closing tax loopholes (favored by Democrats) and slashing entitlement spending (backed by Republicans). The Speaker yielded to the far right wing of his party, which is demanding that everything be on the table -- except the things they don't want on the table.

Boehner's latest gambit shouldn't have surprised anyone. In Lexington, he admitted that compromise was elusive in Washington, as members of Congress are being driven ever further to the extremes of their parties. A year earlier, in a 60 Minutes interview, the then-aspiring-Speaker was more blunt: When talking about "compromise," Boehner remarked, "I reject the word... When you say the word 'compromise,'... a lot of Americans look up and go, 'Uh-oh, they're gonna sell me out.'"

But as much as partisans may want to pin blame on the current Speaker, it is hard to imagine that even Henry Clay could deliver a great compromise in today's political climate. With hyper-partisans dominating the political discussion, every negotiation is now a zero-sum game: Winning is only possible if your political adversaries leave the table with empty hands. If Boehner presented his caucus with a compromise that delivered only 90 percent of their demands, it isn't hard to imagine it being rejected, and the more partisan House Majority Leader Eric Cantor using it to wrest away the Speaker's gavel from Boehner's hands.

The causes of our nation's political polarization crisis are well known: Lightly-participated, closed primaries pushing candidates to the far left or right; self-serving redistricting schemes making general elections uncompetitive; and a hyper-ideological blogosphere and conflict-indulgent media fanning the partisan flames. Elected officials live in fear of the extremes of their parties, who often call for the heads of those who even hint at compromise.

There was no better example of this phenomenon than the outcome of 2010's attempted great compromise on one of the most significant policy issues of our era: climate change remediation. The tri-partisan comprehensive energy bill negotiated by Senators Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and Lindsey Graham was unceremoniously abandoned when Graham succumbed to extraordinary pressure applied by South Carolina Tea Partiers, many of whom deny global warming even exists.

There really is only one solution. The political dynamic must be turned on its head: Our representatives should instead be forced to live in fear of retribution should they not be willing to work with their political adversaries. And despite the tenor of the current political debate, Americans overwhelmingly support such a philosophy: A recent Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates poll revealed that a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all said that a compromise between the two parties would result in the best solution to our budget crisis; while 48 percent of voters say that they would be more likely to vote for a member of Congress who would compromise on fiscal issues, compared to 12 percent who say they would be less likely to vote for a compromiser

That's precisely why nearly 100,000 Americans, including me, have joined a nascent political movement called "No Labels."  We are a collection of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents -- with strong and diverging views on a wide range of policy issues -- who agree that, on occasion, we must put aside our labels and do what is best for our country.

In the short term, No Labels activists are contacting their representatives, demanding that they stay in session and forge a deal to address the current budget crisis.  In the long run -- as we build our membership to a million strong and beyond, and as we organize for a gathering of No Labels supporters in Philadelphia next summer -- we aspire to nothing short of shifting the political dynamic to reflect the vast majority of the American people, instead of the narrow hyper-partisan interests that currently dominate both dialogue and action. In the modern age of social media technology, we don't need a third party; we need a third voice that is a clarion call for bipartisan solutions and a counterweight to the extremes on the left and the right.

My immediate inspiration is my 17-year-old daughter, Emily.  A year away from college, and only a few more from the job market, she is part of a new generation that dismisses the rigid partisanship and inflexible ideologies of the status quo. So it is ever more incumbent on us grownups to insist that our leaders not poison the policy well with their toxic failure to reach across the aisle and serve the common good.

It's fitting that Emily, like her father, is going to be a graduate of Henry Clay High School. The Great Compromiser's philosophy has been demeaned by the current political system. It is our duty to ensure that the next generation still has the opportunity to grasp Clay's legacy to build a stronger future.