10/01/2012 09:34 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Inspired by Collaborative Political Leaders

As today's political leaders seek to overcome the challenge of reaching consensus on economic policy and enhancing U.S. national security, they would benefit by studying the achievements of Chuck Manatt and Frank Fahrenkopf at the "Making Democracy Work" exhibit that the George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) opens this weekend at our building in Washington, DC.

Just as each generation seems to be confronted with a new threat to our security, each decade brings a unique challenge to the conduct of effective democratic governance. America's military has always risen to the task of securing our nation. So must our politicians and political managers rise to the challenge of getting the nation's business done.

While the comity, respect, and humor enjoyed by Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill is often praised, fewer understand the profound and long-lasting impact that resulted from the cooperation of then-Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Charles Manatt and Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf. While both chairmen were tireless advocates for their own party's platform, they inherently understood their common interest was in laying the foundation for transition from authoritarian governments that controlled so much of the world's political map in 1983. Their dedication to this objective created important common ground, something that democracy activists and freedom fighters around the world admired then and still do today.

Joint-party action helped set up President Reagan's efforts to boldly contest the communist challenge to democracy when in June 1982 in the historic Westminster Hall in London, he sought to defy... "totalitarian forces in the world who seek subversion and conflict around the globe to further their barbarous assault on the human spirit."

To meet this challenge, Reagan described "... a plan and a hope for the long term -- the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people."

His plan for doing so was " foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means."

President Reagan's plan was not simply his own invention. It sprang from a major study titled "Project Democracy," conducted by the American Political Foundation founded in 1979 by Manatt and RNC Chairman Bill Brock. Responding to Reagan's challenge and conditions around the world, Congress authorized and funded the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Center for Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the Solidarity Center. Manatt and Fahrenkopf were among the founders of NED and helped guide its first 10 years. Manatt served as Founding Chairman of NDI. Frank Farhrenkopf served as Founding Chairman of IRI and continues to serve on its board.

The fruits of these efforts resulted in the spread of democracy around the world, particularly during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. Looking back this seems non-controversial and inevitable. It was not. Thirty years ago this month, I traveled abroad for the first time to study in the Netherlands, less than three months after Reagan's Westminster speech. I can tell from personal experience that many European youth took great exception to Reagan's resolve to stand up against tyranny in pursuit of the defense and the advancement of democracy. As an American in Europe, I was constantly challenged to defend this active advance of democratic ends. The new freedoms many enjoy today resulted from the democracy promotion efforts spawned by Reagan, Rep. Dante Fascell, Manatt, Fahrenkopf, and others. We owe them a great debt. Their success contributed to the fall of communism without a shot being fired.

National political leadership seems to have lost all appreciation for consensus-building skills. Just as confronting tyranny was a central challenge to political leaders during Manatt's and Fahrenkopf's chairmanships, the seminal challenge of our day is overcoming fragmentation to get beyond posturing to action on a core agenda of fiscal sustainability and competitiveness. My hope is that the dedication and ingenuity of Manatt and Fahrenkopf that is on display in our new exhibit will help inspire surmounting the current political hurdles we face.

GSPM is proud to have had Manatt on our board and to continue to benefit from the counsel of Fahrenkopf. We dedicate ourselves to continuing their legacy by committing to the purpose of Making Democracy Work. I call on all who receive democracy's benefits to join in this effort -- a struggle that is truly the foundational and pivotal challenge of our day.

Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's). "Making Democracy Work" will be on display until February 2013 at GWU's Graduate School of Political Management.