Opinion

Yes, Virginia, there is hope for the country

Amid bare-knuckle politics, two events restore faith that nation can heal

Former Speaker John Boehner tries to hold back tears as he stands with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell during his portrait unveiling ceremony on Nov. 19. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

This is my last column for the year and what a year it has been. There’s much to celebrate — the economy and the Nats— and seemingly, just as much to commiserate about — impeachment and the Redskins. The nation’s capital is bright with holiday lights, but I can’t honestly say the same about the spirit of the city.

The holidays are supposed to be a time of peace on earth and goodwill to all, yet here we are as a nation in the midst of a brutal impeachment process promoted by a frenzied media, more divided along partisan lines than ever. Goodwill seems evermore in short supply.

So, I’m not going to write about impeachment this week and, instead, take a stab at something a little more uplifting. Because even in Washington there are occasional glimmers of hope that we are better than this.

Usually, at this time of the year, voters tend to be slightly more optimistic about where their country is headed but not this year. For well over a decade, people have been telling pollsters they believe the nation is on the wrong track for a variety of reasons. Yet no matter how bleak the media portrays America today, there are people out there, a lot of them actually, who want to bring the country together and end the partisan war games that have torn us apart.

Throughout this year, I’ve heard voters of different backgrounds and parts of the country, all having very different perspectives on the source of this terrible division. But whoever or whatever they choose to blame, they are, nevertheless, unified in their concern about its negative impact on the country and especially, the futures of their children.

Here’s what several told us.

Independent voter: “I think our biggest issue is that we’re divided as a country. Even if we’re fiscally, financially improving, if the numbers show that we’re improving, as a society we’re so divided that half of us don’t see it, the other half of us don’t believe it.”

Conservative Republican voter: “I think it is in a very tumultuous situation. Everyone is on emotional edge. People are just from one extreme to the other, yelling and screaming at one another.”

Democratic voter: “I think the United States is not united at all. It’s divide and conquer.”

Finally, a suburban female voter: “I’m happy to live in this country, but I think the political parties right now are so unsettling … And there doesn’t seem to be anyone coming together to try to resolve the big issues that we talked about.”

Shortage of solution seekers

Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia reflected this concern about our growing national divide in his recent farewell address on the Senate floor. He warned that America could “succumb to crushing itself inwardly.” Isakson is someone I have been grateful to have known and have respected since his days in the House.

In his address, Isakson also lamented the abundance of those focusing on problems, and the shortage of individuals trying to get to a solution.

“Being bipartisan doesn’t mean a Democrat and Republican talk to each other every once in a while; it means this: Two people come together who probably have differences — probably have a lot of differences — but they find a way to get to the end of the trail, where there is the possibility of a solution, and then they do the things they have to do to get to that solution,” he said. “America today is built on people who found a way to get to that end of the solution, no question about it.”

The American people agree with him. But, in truth, there are people on both sides of the aisle who are trying to find ways to make things work.

They are usually marginalized by a media chasing after a quick soundbite or a cheap cable shot, who would rather interview a show pony playing to the cameras than a workhorse who actually gets things done.

I heard a voter sum it up by saying, “We really don’t know what’s going on up there. I’m sure they have passed legislation. I just don’t think we’ve heard about it.”

‘Fix it’

So, I’m not surprised after countless discussions that I find that voters, especially women, are increasingly hostile about lawmakers and candidates who are great at describing problems but come up empty when it comes to solving problems. Voters are tired of the constant partisan bickering while they’re trying to pay for their health care or Christmas presents for their kids.

One of the best quotes I heard this year was from an independent, a suburban woman in a competitive district. She said, “I don’t want any more blame, I don’t want people cut down. … Tell me how you’re going to fix it!” With suburban female voters crucial to both a Republican or Democratic victory next year, a focus on winning this key group just might help steer both parties back toward the land of bi-partisan solutions.

But as we wind down what admittedly has been an ugly political year, we should not accept the premise that next year will be worse. For those who doubt progress can be made despite impeachment and a presidential election or that there are leaders who can at least begin to mend the rift dividing the American people, I will tell you why I think it is possible.

Two events last month restored my faith that the country can heal, that we can come back together as one nation — maybe not next month or even next year, but in time. On Nov. 19, I attended the unveiling of former Speaker John Boehner’s official portrait. It was a wonderful tribute; and for those of us who worked with him, it was a moment that brought tears to most eyes and, it goes without saying, to Boehner’s.

But it was the tone of remarks by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer that was so notable. They both applauded Boehner’s leadership, his service to his country, to the House he loved and to his faith. They could not have been kinder or more respectful. Given the harsh rhetoric that has diminished our political debate today, this was a needed reminder that “we can disagree without being disagreeable,” a line that was almost a mantra for Speaker Boehner.

Finding a way to get along

That same day, the House also paid tribute to Isakson, who is retiring this month. There were many speeches, but none was more poignant or moving than Rep. John Lewis’ wonderful tribute. He talked of their long-standing friendship and how closely they had worked together over the years, especially on reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act.

Lewis described Isakson as a model of someone who could “cross the aisle without compromising your values.” He called him a bridge builder, his friend and his brother, and said they always found a way “to get along and do the good work that people deserve.”

But perhaps the most powerful affirmation of his words came as Lewis closed and these two old friends moved slowly, each from their side of the aisle, to meet and embrace one last time in the center of the House they served so honorably.

If there is anything we could use right now in these troubled times, it’s more people like these three individuals who were always committed to “do the good work people deserve,” and find ways to get things done with the other side to move the country forward.

The American people are looking for those kinds of leaders. I believe they still exist.

Happy holidays.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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