11/08/2011 05:20 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2012

Former DNC Chairman Ed Rendell on Intransigent Politicians, Compromise, and Occupy Wall Street

Ed Rendell has served as mayor of Philadelphia, (1992-99) chairman of the Democratic National Committee, (1999-2001) and governor of Pennsylvania (2003-2011).

This interview took place on October 11 at Harvard's Institute of Politics.

MATT: How does our political discourse today compare to when you first ran for office in the 70s?

ED RENDELL: I think people are more guarded, because there's more media. I think people are too guarded, frankly, and they're too afraid of saying something. But on the other hand -- to explain politicians' behavior -- you say something at 10:15 and it's on the news at 10:45. I mean, the world has changed dramatically since the 70's.

We didn't have the 24/7. We didn't have the intense interest in politics. We didn't have the left having generally its TV station and the right having generally its TV station (with some exceptions on both sides). So I think people are far too guarded. I think we suffer because of it. The public discourse suffers because of it.

I think politicians are also far too interested in short-term damage control. The best example I will give you is when the situation came out with the African-American woman fired for...

MATT: Shirley Sherrod.

ED RENDELL: Yeah. The Obama Administration didn't have to say, "We're going to fire her." They could have said -- the appropriate thing is, "Look, we're going to look into it and see what happens." Why did they say they wanted to fire her?

MATT: To end the story.

ED RENDELL: To end the story. The American people aren't dumb. I think that's another thing politicians generally do, probably more so now than before. They underestimate the fairness and the intelligence of the American people, so that they have to give these expected answers or rote answers.

MATT: Political culture in Washington has changed dramatically since you first entered politics. In those days, Democrats and Republicans would actually spend time together as friends outside of work hours, getting to know one another and building trust.

ED RENDELL: Absolutely.

MATT: That's happening less and less. Is that true at the state level as well?

ED RENDELL: In DC, I'll give you the perfect example: when Tom Daschle was defeated in 2004, he had been the Democratic leader for six or eight years. He was one of the best-liked people in the Senate. You can't spend half an hour with Tom Daschle and not like him. He's a really terrific guy. Like the week before he left Washington in early January, they had a ceremony on the Senate floor to say farewell and to honor him. Four Republicans showed up. If that scene, instead of 2004, had been in 1974, the entire Senate would have been in their seats.

The lack of socialization makes it harder to govern. There's no question about it. As governor, I tried to learn what each legislator -- what was their hot button issue. I tried to learn something about what brought them to the Legislature, what was the driving force in their lives, so you have an idea of what each person needed and what they wanted, and how to accommodate them to a degree. It's becoming harder and harder to do. The state capitals are slightly behind -- we're not quite as partisan or ideological as Washington is, but we're getting there.

MATT: What's your take on the Occupy Wall Street movement?

ED RENDELL: Well, I think that there's a very good point to be made, and I think they've made it. I think the time has come now for them to say, "We've made our point. We've got our issue across. Now, let's go out and organize politically to try to change the makeup in Washington so that we can actually make change happen."

I'd love to know how many of the Occupy Wall Street folks are registered to vote; that's number one. But number two, I want them to get up and start registering voters, start playing towards the 2012 election. Not just the presidential, but Congressional and Senate elections and state legislative elections. That's where they can make real change.

MATT: How do you understand the point that the Occupy movement is trying to make?

ED RENDELL: The fact that this country better do something about the increasing disparity between the very rich and the rest of us. The gap between what the richest Americans are making and what the working class of America is making, and the poorest Americans -- that gap is not even exponential. It's exploded in the last fifteen to twenty years. And if we don't do something about shortening that gap, this country is in real trouble. I think that's the point, and I think they've made it fairly emphatically.

MATT: Given the current political makeup in DC, is there any chance of movement on these issues?

ED RENDELL: I have hope for 2013. If President Obama gets reelected, there'll still obviously be at least one chamber that's Republican -- maybe two. But I have hope that in 2013, some cooler heads will prevail. The ideological posturing, since there's not an election for another two years, will be sort of put in the background, and people will try to make it work. Now, I could be wrong, but I have hope that in 2013, we'll see some real investments in something that might create jobs, like our nation's infrastructure. We'll see a deficit reduction plan that includes increased revenue as well as reduced spending and including entitlement reform. Then we'll just get together and say, "Look, we're going to do what's right for the country. Everybody's going to be ticked off a little bit, but we have to do it."

MATT: Do you think the solutions to the big problems facing the country right now are within mainstream Republican and Democratic discourse? Or is there a need to expand the discourse in ways that the Occupy movement is encouraging?

ED RENDELL: Well, first of all, you have to define for me what the mainstream Republican discourse is. I don't know right now. I don't know what's mainstream. But I do know the most important point that I would make to the Republicans and Democrats in the Congress. I do this all the time when I'm on the air; in fact, I do it so much that whenever I'm on Morning Joe, they find this song. It's a great Rolling Stones song called "You Can't Always Get What You Want." That's the answer.

So, if the Republicans in the House of Representatives want to substantially reduce federal spending, yes, they can get that. But in return, they're going to have to increase revenue by legitimate tax reforms so that every corporation pays income tax. Right now, 38% of American corporations pay no income tax -- unacceptable. GE made S13 billion in profit and paid no taxes -- unacceptable. That has to change. It is time for us to go back to the wealthiest Americans paying more like they did in the Clinton years.

We do have to do something about entitlements, there's no question about it. It's not hard, it's not rocket science. It means that some of the things that we believe in, we can't necessarily preserve totally intact, and you can't always get what you want, everything that you want. That's the message, and hopefully, that attitude will prevail in 2013. If it does, the rest is easy.

When the government was shut down in 1995-96, I was one of five mayors who went down to see the Congressional leadership. We saw the House, and then we went to see [Republican Senate Majority Leader] Bob Dole. He shut the door, and he said, "Listen, if you guys say that I said this, I'll deny it, but Bill Clinton and I could sit down at a table, and we could resolve the federal budget crisis in two hours." I believe that Bob Dole and Bill Clinton would have, but you had ideologues over at the House that had to be beaten down, and that crisis was resolved and they were beaten down.

Maybe that will happen in the election. I mean, I would love to see a lot of incumbents who are intransigient on both sides -- I would love to see them given the pink slip by the voters.

And maybe the message would get across: we want this thing to work, and that means you all compromise. The vast majority of the American people, 70 percent-plus, want the government to work together and compromise. There are some ideologues on the left and some ideologues on the right who say, "No surrender. No compromise. No this. No that." The vast amount of Americans want it to work, and that's hopefully the message.