David Axelrod, Joshua Bolten restore civility to public debate

[Washington Window] Bickering and misinformation seem to dominate today’s public debate, said Amy Ignatius, introducing a discussion between David Axelrod, senior advisor to President Barack Obama and Joshua Bolten, chief of staff to former President George W. Bush at Washington National Cathedral. The Oct. 5 debate was moderated by CBS anchor Bob Schieffer.

Ignatius has served in state government for more than 30 years, but told the audience at the annual Nancy and Paul Ignatius Program, “Governing Across the Divide: Restoring Civility to Our Public Discourse,” that if she was starting her career today, she wouldn’t choose politics.

Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black noted that throughout American history there has been incivility in government, but “there may be more civility on Capitol Hill than we realize.”

Schieffer agreed, “but I would also say this: I have been in Washington now for 41 years, and I presently believe that we have a meanness that has settled over our politics today that is worse and runs deeper than I can recall in my time here.”

Even the social landscape has changed, he added, noting that when he arrived, lawmakers from both parties would regularly attend the same events. “I’m finding now that Democrats and Republicans don’t like to be at the same parties or even to be heard complimenting each other.”

Civility is possible “only if the incentives in our political discourse change,” Bolten said. “The environment has become so coarse that civility is difficult to achieve alongside political success.”

“There is a tendency to be strident,” Axelrod said. “We’ve got media that’s now dividing up into ideological camps.” While “incivility is part of the American political tradition, what is new is the shrillness of the media and the prism through which it is examined.”

He pointed to the virulent opposition the Obama administration has received to its economic proposals during the current crisis and to the administration’s struggles with healthcare reform. “It’s been a difficult environment and I’m not suggesting we’re blameless, that we can’t do anything differently,” he said. “But it’s been a sheer rock from the beginning.”

“It was not that different in the Bush administration,” Bolten said, noting that the “infamous bailout had to be proposed by a Republican president to whom a bailout was anathema and supported by Democrats to whom rescuing a bunch of big banks was anathema – but that’s how it was done.”

The healthcare debate “does not make me despair, though a lot of the tone did,” Bolten added. Deep disagreement between the parties is expected, he explained, “but when they agree and can’t come together is the problem.” An example of this is the Bush administration’s failed attempt to tackle Social Security Reform.

“I bet if President Obama and President Bush got in a room and talked quietly about Social Security reform they could probably basically agree,” he said.

“Different problems require the parties to hold hands, and we haven’t had enough of that,” Axelrod said.
Bolton pointed to immigration reform as an area in which, despite partisan differences “there is a place in the middle where we ought to be able to arrive.”

The Internet age has changed the way news is reported, Schieffer said.

“Stories surface on the Internet, then create a furor, the furor creates a political environment, and the mainstream news cover it as that,” Axelrod said. And increasingly, “people look at Web sites and look at the channel of their choice that affirms their point of view.”

“The cable networks are fighting for viewers,” Bolten said. “It is in their interests to exaggerate our views to get more viewers. I don’t think there’s a solution to that – you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube.”

The emergence of 24/7 news networks that cater to one side or the other makes political compromise much more difficult, said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) in remarks following the main program. “Being a moderate in the Senate is a difficult place to be at this time in our history,” she said, noting that thanks to the television networks, hard liners on both sides “now have an outlet for their rants and arguably make much more interesting interviews than those of us in the colorless center.”

Other areas that impact civility in the Senate are “when Senators campaign against their colleagues across the aisle,” she added, and when the minority party is shut out of discussions (which causes them to over-use filibusters to stop bills they are not able to amend).

Schieffer mentioned the enormous amount of money it now takes to get elected: “[Politicians] have to sign off with so many groups that by the time they get here they are compromised.”

“When money is so important in politics,” said historian Michael Beschloss in closing remarks, “it almost commands the type of behavior we’ve heard so much about tonight.” Reducing the influence of money in politics would help, he said, as would a greater understanding that “through history the great leaders have been those who talk to both sides, not those who engage in character assassination.”

* The third annual Nancy and Paul Ignatius Program was set up “to explore issues of government and faith that affect us at the most profound level,” Ignatius said. The event kicked off a year of programming at Washington National Cathedral on the issue of “civility and ultimately reconciliation,” said Dean Samuel T. Lloyd.

Washington Window Volume 79, No. 6, November/December 2010 as

Restoring civility to the public debate

Annual Ignatius Program addresses the divisiveness that permeates today’s politics