It’s Time for Bipartisan Solutions

Posted November 18, 2008 at 3:46pm

We wrote this piece before Election Day — on purpose. Our view was then, and remains now, that no matter who won the election, the challenges facing America are so significant that only truly bipartisan approaches can unite the country to effectively address them. And we believe the same now that Barack Obama has become president-elect.

[IMGCAP(1)][IMGCAP(2)]During the campaign, both Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) recognized that the atmosphere in Washington, and indeed our politics as a whole, has become too personalized, polarized and petty. To their credit, both candidates put appeals for bipartisanship at the very center of their campaign messages. Of course, the campaign, like most, got very rough over the final weeks.

But in the closing month, the candidates managed to put out the following statement together about the financial rescue plan:

“Now is a time to come together — Democrats and Republicans — in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of the American people,” their joint statement read.

We could not agree more. Elections are partisan — but policy creation need not be.

In recent weeks, the bipartisan response by President George W. Bush and Congress to the financial crisis has shown that the parties can come together and act quickly on critical issues. The post-election Congressional session will be another test of how serious Congress is about more inclusive approaches going forward.

We have, in fact, entered a period of unique opportunity for bipartisanship — for an elevation of our national dialogue toward discussions based on genuine respect between the parties and with a view toward promoting a shared national interest. This opportunity transcends the usual “honeymoon” period that follows the election of a new president and Congress.

The financial crisis and the difficult economy have come with great peril — but they also present remarkable opportunity for solutions crafted from the best ideas on both right and left. It may be that the president- elect needs to include multiple senior leaders from the other party, instead of just a token one, in his Cabinet. It may be advisable to hold routine, and truly bipartisan, meetings with Members of Congress on key issues.

[IMGCAP(3)]But this much is sure — the crisis has stoked the already keen desire across the country for real answers among Americans. They are worried about their jobs, incomes and retirements — about their health care, energy bills, college savings and national security. They want action from Washington — not bickering and backstabbing.

America has been here before. And we have responded. Some are comparing current political and economic circumstances to the Great Depression and the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. A more recent analogy is found in the economic circumstances of 1981, with the country confronting a long recession and high unemployment. Ronald Reagan together with Democrats and Republicans in Congress passed a series of measures that helped turn things around. And while times and solutions may be different today, the need for strong cohesive national leadership is not.

This is why the two of us, along with former Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), have helped found the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit organization whose Advisory Board we serve on, and which has important policy projects under way on health care, national security, energy, transportation, science policy and other issues. The ethos of the BPC is not bipartisanship for its own sake. Instead, it is the conviction that evidence-based, consensus-driven policy creation that is jointly developed and jointly advocated by experts from both parties can help develop and deliver better policy for the American people.

Some of us have experience at this. Dole played a pivotal role in the successful Social Security rescue of 1983, for example, working with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.). Sen. Mitchell worked with President George H. W. Bush and Republican and Democratic colleagues in Congress to pass the landmark 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.

Sen. Baker navigated the partisan shoals of Watergate in historic ways, helping the nation heal after an unprecedented crisis. Sen. Daschle helped unify and lift the country after the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001. We share these experiences with many others — the truth is that the great majority of current Members of Congress from both parties have, at various times and in important ways, reached across the aisle for the national good.

There is no reason these past successes cannot be duplicated and in fact surpassed by Congress next year. And even as Members continue to deal with our economic crisis, they must marshal that same shared sense of purpose to address other key issues as well. High on that list is addressing the critical issue of health care.

We created the BPC’s “Leaders’ Project on the State of American Health Care” last year and have been working together on recommendations to address the major challenges in our current system. In forums in Kansas, Maine, Tennessee and Washington, and through original research, we have learned again the toll the present system is taking on our health and economy. Next January, we hope to release broad-based recommendations that address what we call the Four Pillars of Health Care Reform:

1. Preserving and improving the quality and value of care

2. Offering affordable, accessible coverage choices in a reformed insurance market

3. Ensuring and promoting a strong individual role in health care coverage and costs

4. Securing a workable financing mechanism for health care

We are fortunate in that the project is being advised by two of the top health care policy experts in the United States — Chris Jennings and Dr. Mark McClellan, who held key health policy positions under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively. With their help, we believe our recommendations can provide a blueprint for health reform going forward.

Historians from across the political spectrum have observed in recent years that the Cold War provided a sense of shared national purpose that moderated partisan passions in the past, but that such a unifying purpose between parties no longer exists. We reject that notion. We believe that getting our economy on track is an American, not a party, issue. We believe the same about stopping terrorism, and providing more people affordable health care while making our businesses more competitive. The same with energy, trade, the environment — the list goes on.

No — it is not challenges we lack. It is the resolve to solve them together that has been missing. But resolve is a resource that America will never run out of. We just need to renew it, together.

Howard Baker served as a Republican Senator from Tennessee from 1967 to 1985. George Mitchell served as a Democratic Senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995. Along with former Sens. Bob Dole and Tom Daschle, they form the Advisory Board of the Bipartisan Policy Center.