Politics is a bruising, full-contact sport -- as Ronald Reagan discovered shortly after his inauguration.
In his autobiography, An American Life, he tells how he and Nancy hosted a dinner party for House Speaker Tip O’Neill and his wife -- “a warm, pleasant evening” filled with laughter and stories. Reagan felt he’d made a friend.
“But a day or two later,” he writes, “I picked up a newspaper and read a story in which Tip really lit into me personally because he didn’t like the economic recovery program and some of the cuts I proposed in spending. Some of his remarks were pretty nasty. … I called him and said, ‘Tip, I just read in the paper what you said about me yesterday. I thought we had a pretty fine relationship going.’”
“Ol’ buddy,” Tip said, “that’s politics. After six o’clock we can be friends, but before six, it’s politics.”
More than 25 years later, the tone in Washington is no better. Hearing the invective fly on cable news talk shows, watching lawmakers denounce each other on C-SPAN, reading the outrage that fills our op-ed pages -- it’s enough to make anyone cry “Enough!” No wonder voters keep telling politicians they’re fed up with partisanship -- or that candidates include obligatory calls for “unity” in their stump speeches.
But is unity really possible? Those who are too nice, one assumes, will get steamrolled by opponents willing to “go negative,” while those who are too mean contribute to the poisonous atmosphere that upsets everyone in the first place. But before you throw your hands up in despair, let me suggest you read the intriguing new book Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America by Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel.
Yes, that Cal Thomas and that Bob Beckel -- who, as they freely admit, contributed to that climate of polarization. “We helped write the game plan, and we have participated in everything from getting money out of true believers to appearing on television to help spread the contentious message,” they write. “In many cases, we wrote the message. We know the jig, and it’s just about up.” (The book’s title, incidentally, comes from a USA Today column they’ve been writing for the last two years.)
In short, Thomas and Beckel know a thing or two about polarization. And if they can come together and chart a course for “common ground,” there’s no excuse for the rest of us to keep sniping at each other.