February 12, 2007
An exclusive interview with Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Bill Nel- son (D-Florida), both of whom are active in Presbyterian churches.
TPO: People speak longingly of the good ol’ days of political bipartisanship. Are people contriving those memories, or have there ever really been such days
Alexander: They’re forgetting a lot of history. Henry Cabot Lodge, the Re- publican majority leader, said repeated- ly, “I hate Woodrow Wilson more than anybody I’ve every known.” They’re forgetting the acrimony among the founders like Jefferson and Madison, and the rivalries in Lincoln’s days. The nature of government is to debate the great issues. Those issues that can’t be settled in local communities and states’ governments get kicked up here.
On the other hand when I first came to the Senate 40 years ago this month as an assistant to Howard Baker, Mike Mansfield, the Democratic majority leader, and George Akin, the Republican senator from Vermont, started each day with a cup of coffee together. … We used to spend more time together, held supper clubs on Monday evenings with our spouses. Families would often move here, and the families would of- ten get to know one another. There’s less opportunity for senators to get to know one another well enough to work together as much.
Nelson: There were good ol’ days. That was when members of Congress and the Senate took time to build personal relationships. Back in the good ol’ days senators and members of Congress lived here for six months. … In recent years the workweek was trimmed down to Tuesdays through Thursdays. Now we’ve improved that and go Monday afternoons till Friday mornings. I see Lamar each Wednesday morning at the Senate prayer breakfast. About 20-25% of the Senators show up for that. The problem is that when you don’t have the personal relationship, then people get too hot on the issue differences. People forget that to find consensus in a democracy you need to follow the
Golden Rule. That’s been violated here a lot. I’m hoping that we’ll start to change all that.
TPO: What else has caused such polarization in Washington?
Alexander: One is the 24/7 media. If you have to fill up the media, you’re al- ways looking for conflicts to report. You can always find two people in Washington to argue on TV. Second, the rise of public interest groups—pro- life, pro-choice, pro-gun, anti-gun; they’re pushing parties to more extreme positions. Third, not only are our families not here as much, for some reason we spend most of our meal times in team meetings, when we talk about how to defeat the others. We’re not spending enough time praying and talking together. Fourth, there’s not enough discussion about what unites us as a country. It is unfashionable to talk about patriotism and civic duty, and yet we do have so many principles like e pluribus unum, the principle of law, etc. that do unite us.
Nelson: The rise of single interest politics means that a group’s issue is the only thing that’s important to them. And either you’re for ‘em or agin ‘em. That polarizes the political electorate. And the partisan approach that the Bush White House has taken. There were two messages in this election. One: the Iraq War. And two: the people wanted to stop the partisan bickering.
TPO: This year’s elections surely have cried out for bipartisanship. What do you hope can come of that in this session of the U.S. Senate?
Nelson: A bunch of us are working on it. [It boils down to] following the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated, and you lay the table for how you build consensus. In a country as big and diverse as ours, you have to build consensus.
Alexander: Joe Lieberman and I have tried something. We’ve begun a Tues- day morning meeting … in the same room as the Wednesday prayer break-fast. We’ve invited the senators to get together to get to know one another and work together better. It’s intention- ally not ideological. …We had 40 at the first meeting, 24 yesterday—the morning of the State of the Union—a remarkable number to get together at any time. We’re hopeful this will be one small step to encourage a more civil, bi- partisan atmosphere.
TPO: Let’s talk about political campaigns. So many good politicians end up running smear campaigns, and they find that that’s the best way to win votes from the opponent. Is there any hope to change that?
Nelson: That’s not the way that I tried to conduct my campaign. The problem is, and this is a truth, people don’t like negative ads, but they believe them. And so you’re going to have it going on, and people are going to believe it unless you counter it.
Alexander: This is primarily a distortion created by the power of television. It’s not easy to accommodate TV in our society. It has changed family life, and Washington politics. But it’s self-correcting. For example, when a TV ad in the recent Tennessee race tried to smear one candidate, even though his opponent had not run the ad, the electorate reacted against the smear, and popular opinion turned against the one that the ad was supposed to be helping.
One thing to add: I led the prayer at the prayer breakfast this morning: “May we respect each other’s views as much as we want others to respect our own.” A golden rule for views should be a great way to start. Among all senators there is a hunger to work better together. We are naturally inclined to do that, but the interest groups, the media, the schedule have all worked against it. But we hope that this Tuesday morning meeting will help. Also, my chief of staff has helped organize a chief-of- staffs group meeting. Fifty-five met together the other day. That’s a great start.