January 09, 2011
As we leave behind a year of extreme political turbulence, Americans are rightly wondering: What comes next? Will our politicians spend this year hooting and hollering at one another, letting us drift downhill, or will they put the country first?
History proves that even in fractious times, it is possible for leaders to work together. Richard Nixon, my first White House boss, told me shortly before he died about one of his proudest moments. Having just returned from World War II, he hung up his military uniform and ran for Congress in 1946. Propelled by a wave of disenchantment with President Truman -- similar to the one that has struck President Obama -- Republicans swept into power in both the House and the Senate and were braced for a fight.
Only a few months later, things would change. Truman saw that postwar Europe was falling apart and asked his secretary of state, George Marshall, to put together a huge aid package. The plan's expense made it unpopular at first, so Truman invited Republican foes to join the administration in drafting the Marshall Plan, and a bipartisan campaign was launched to overcome public opposition.
When the plan from a beleaguered Democratic president was put to a vote on the House floor in 1948, Nixon stood up in favor on one side of the aisle, and there, standing on the other side, was another congressional freshman, John F. Kennedy. Though he and Kennedy frequently clashed, Nixon saw that vote as one of his proudest moments because it proved that when the chips are down, Americans can stand up together.
During my early years in Washington, when the World War II generation was in charge, I witnessed that spirit again and again. The war veterans saw themselves as strong Democrats or strong Republicans -- but first and foremost, as strong Americans. That ethos was in full flower in the Reagan years. Even though the House was in the hands of the Democrats for both of his terms, President Reagan and Congress reached bipartisan agreements at several key moments -- from spending and tax cuts in 1981 to Social Security reform in 1983 to an overhaul of the tax system in 1986.
More recently, in conditions remarkably similar to Obama's, Bill Clinton showed that it is possible to make serious progress for the country. He suffered a stinging defeat by Republicans in his first midterm elections. He was so devastated, it appeared that Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, would run over him; then, as he moved to the center, he also angered many in his own Democratic base. Sound familiar?
But Clinton nimbly outmaneuvered both the right and the left, and we moved forward as a people. In his later years in office, he and the Republicans not only overhauled the welfare system -- a significant milestone -- but also produced four straight balanced budgets, something not seen in over half a century. He left office with Democrats mostly assuaged and the general public giving him high marks.
So, it can be done. Even with polarization, a weakened president and a fractious Congress can put down their differences and lift up the country. In fact, Yale political scientist David Mayhew has conducted a pioneering study showing that times of divided government -- contrary to conventional wisdom -- produce as much effective legislation as do times of unified control.
The question before us is whether this generation of leaders can rise to the call as others have. The public knows we can't go on living as we have. Can President Obama finally sound a clear trumpet, leading the country to support a brave agenda for a renewed, competitive nation? Will Republicans be willing to meet him halfway? Will the extremists in both parties allow sensible compromises to be forged and passed?
There were glimmers of hope -- and lots of dark moments -- as the old Congress returned for a quick shirttail session. But now a new Congress has come to town, and the real work is about to begin. A moment of truth is upon us. The chips are down. Once again, we Americans must summon the courage and goodwill to stand up together.
David Gergen is a professor of public service at Harvard and a senior political analyst at CNN. He serves on the board of Teach for America and has advised four Presidents.