12/21/2011 05:18 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2012

Why Can't They Be Friends?

Several years ago, I was flying from New York to Boston with a conservative Republican friend. While on our way to the coach section, we encountered the famed Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was seated in first class. "Professor Galbraith," my friend exclaimed, "how Republican of you to sit in first class." Galbraith didn't miss a beat. "My friend," he quipped, "We Democrats believe that everyone should fly first class." We all laughed.

There was a time in America when Americans recognized that there were thoughtful Republicans and there were thoughtful Democrats who could agree to disagree on ideology, yet discover compromise and common ground when crafting policies. President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill come to mind. As the story goes, despite their political differences, they had a standing happy hour appointment each week.

Then there's Northeast Ohio's Republican Congressman Steve LaTourette and his long-time Democratic counterpart Dennis Kucinich, whose unlikely friendship was the subject of a spoof on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart a few years ago, featuring the two of them watching TV together wearing Snuggies and pushing each other on swings.

All four stood firm in their political persuasion yet believed the other was a person of goodwill, resolve and intellect, worthy of their respect and friendship. And so it was. America wasn't perfect, and neither was Congress, but Americans had much greater confidence in Congress than they do now, as evidenced by a new poll that indicates the Congressional job approval rating has hovered near an historic low in recent weeks.

There seems to be a direct correlation between the drop in Americans' opinion of Congress and Congress' ability to play nice in the sandbox. Apparently, the admonition of mothers everywhere is true: you can't throw sand without getting some in your eyes.

Congressional historians say that a true riff in the relationships between Republicans and Democrats began in 1994. Prior to that, it was common for nearly all members to move their families to Washington, D.C., when elected. They would spend a handful of days each month in their home district but most nights and weekends in D.C.

This resulted in members of both parties attending the same churches with their kids going to the same schools. It also resulted in what historians have labeled a much higher level of civility. That's probably because it's hard for you to attack someone on the floor of the House when you know their wife personally and your kids play with theirs.

What changed in 1994? Newly-elected House Speaker Newt Gingrich insisted that members -- primarily newly-elected GOP members -- keep their families in their home districts and that they spend as much time there as possible. In that election, Gingrich, in his attempt to take the majority, exploited the fact that Democrats were staying in D.C. Then, by staying in their districts after the campaign, the GOP was able to prevent Democrats from using the same campaign technique against them in 1996.

I believe this explanation for the decline of congressional relations to be true. One reason I believe it is because, at the 2008 Republican Convention, Newt Gingrich and I spoke about the growing divide in America.

"Can our shared values bring red and blue together?" I asked him. He replied, "Politics is a mean game. It will never change." I took that as a no.

The purpose of this anecdote is not to take sides in the presidential election, but to take a very practical look at the business of government. It seemed to work better when civility greased the wheels. Evolutionary biologists point to communication and cooperation as the reason for the long-term success of the human race. The reason is, as we've seen, that in the long-term, nice works. Meanness doesn't.

Democrats don't have an exclusive on nice. Two Republican presidential candidates have recently expressed this sentiment. On Fox News the other day, Mitt Romney said, "Good Democrats love America. Good Republicans love America." In the ABC Republican debate, Ron Paul said, "We all have the same Constitution. What are we arguing about? Somebody's messing up!"

At this time of year, Congress, who once again didn't get their chores done, might take a cue from children who aren't messing up because they know it's better to be good and nice than to risk getting on Santa's naughty list.

Voters, too, can take their cue from Christmas. Instead of blowing smoke up the chimney, they can refuse to reward with money or votes, candidates who are playing mean political games. There's work to be done re-building and re-imagining an America that works and meanness will not get us there. We all would do well to heed Santa's challenge to "be good for goodness sake."

To see America's shared values that can help get us there, go to