Former Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H. once left the Republican Party because he said it wasn’t conservative enough. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., ran unsuccessfully against President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980 because he didn’t think Carter was liberal enough.
And yet – hard as it is to believe today – Smith and Kennedy were good friends, despite holding political views that were polar opposites.
Kennedy, known as the “lion of the Senate,” went out of his way to make Smith feel welcome and appreciated when Smith became a senator. The two would sit together at Senate gatherings, with Kennedy cutting across a room full of his colleagues – many of them fellow Democrats – just to chat with conservative Republican Smith.
By the time Smith left the Senate in 2002, he and Kennedy had worked together on a host of issues.
We bring up this anecdote not to engage in wistful nostalgia, but to point out that America does better when the two sides of the aisle talk to each other, respect each other, and even like each other. America does best when Americans recognize that people from the other party still want what’s best for the nation – they just have a different route to get there.
That, unfortunately, does not describe our current political environment. Democrats and Republicans today demonize and attack each other with ferocity. Oftentimes, it’s not enough to say members of the other party have the wrong ideas – members of the other party are portrayed as evil, incompetent and out to do harm to America.
This escalation of political opposition into political hatred doesn’t benefit anyone. For the good of the nation, Americans must start to see the good in each other.
Time was that what we are calling for here was not controversial. The Reagan administration is a prime example.
In the 1980s, Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts were about as far apart politically as you could get. O’Neill was a liberal New Deal Democrat who favored big government spending, funded by high taxes. Reagan was a conservative Republican who favored small government and low taxes.
While O’Neill believed government was able to solve problems, Reagan famously said in his first inaugural address in 1981: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Yet President Reagan and Speaker O’Neill genuinely liked each other. They could gently make fun of each other, like friends do, as when President Reagan said that he knew a Valentine’s Day card was from Speaker O’Neill because “the heart was still bleeding.”
As President Reagan said, they were friends “after 6 p.m.” – that is, when the cameras were off and they could speak to each other as people, not politicians from opposing parties.
Reagan and O’Neill got a lot of good things done for the American people because of their friendship. Together, they helped negotiate a ceasefire – which eventually led to peace accords – to end the bloody violence in Northern Ireland. They worked together to curb Soviet aggression across the globe, including in Afghanistan.
Oh, and they worked together to pass President Reagan’s signature achievement, the 1986 tax reform legislation that simplified the U.S. tax code, lowered income taxes, eliminated tax shelters and broadened the tax base. It remains a nearly universally admired piece of legislation – one that had a tremendous positive impact on the economy. America won because Democrats and Republicans talked to each other and put country first.
Perhaps this cooperation is why President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, awarded O’Neill the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.
While Democratic and Republican politicians attack each other with angry rhetoric today, polls show most American agree on some issues.
For example, our nation’s infrastructure is in disrepair – and Americans agree we need to fix it. Similarly, Americans agree we need a greater focus on career and technical education, and agree we should expand the earned income tax credit. We want less crime, less disease, more jobs, a more secure world and greater prosperity. We all want our children to have the opportunity to get a good education and good jobs.
What’s holding us back isn’t popular opinion or the issues themselves. It is the vitriol of our political discourse. We can only take on the issues we all agree on when we tamp down our rhetoric and see the good in each other.
Yes, there are outliers – people who can’t be reasoned with and who will not respect us regardless of any olive branch extended. Some bigots hate people because of their race, religion or ethnicity and will never accept their ideas. Some people holding far-left or far-right views see any compromise as a sign of weakness and will never give an inch.
Those exceptions, however, make emphasizing our shared values and shared goals all the more important. If our political “discourse” becomes little more than shouting at each other with hatred, our nation will not survive. Those of us still capable of listening to the other side must extend our hands. A coherent, respectful center will push extremists further to the fringe.
America has become an angry place, a place where demonizing the other side has become the rule. But that anger needs to stop. We must put down our vicious tweets and blog posts and pick up a six-pack or a cup of coffee and talk with someone of a different political persuasion.
We might find out we actually like each other. And we – like Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy, Bob Smith and Tip O’Neill – might do some good for the country we all love.