The only thing more unpopular today than NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at a New England Patriots game or Mel Gibson at a bat mitzvah is Congress.
Exhibit A: Recent Gallup polls show Congress stuck in the starting gate. Only 12 percent of Americans express confidence in it, while three out of four believe the institution merits a scarlet letter of dishonor.
Both parties. Conservatives and liberals. Men and women.
Congress is mired in a muck of mediocrity. Instead of solidifying our economy, safeguarding our defense and ensuring the nation’s health, the players seem more determined to protect their health.
Instead of working together, they work each other over, fueled by shards of opposition research funneled to them by special interests whose only interest is themselves. This man-made dissonance fosters what we have in Washington today: a broken system with broken players who habitually break promises they may have wanted to keep but no longer can.
This Beltway culture thrives on winners and losers, reflecting a wave of intolerance that has divided this country more than at any time since the Civil War. The difference is instead of North versus South, it’s now them versus us.
This is where we should look to the past to inform our future.
Not so long ago, two leaders came together and gave even the most cynical among us a reason to cheer. They were two leaders who felt it was more important to advance the interests of the nation than their own, that loyalty to country supersedes allegiance to party.
President Ronald Reagan, the Republican, was the “great communicator.” House Speaker Tip O’Neill, the Democrat, was the great “personifier.” The former was swept into office because Americans wanted big change at a time when inflation soared, Iranian-held hostages were stuck and America had lost its swagger. The latter occupied an office that in some fashion was the target of that public discontent, yet he was committed to doing something about it.
Reagan told O’Neill he needed help. O’Neill said to Reagan he would “cooperate in every way.” Both meant it, both stood by it and the nation thrived.
Reagan the conservative, O’Neill the liberal, pulling together for a united America.
They crafted bipartisan compromises that helped save Social Security, pumped money into family budgets with huge tax cuts, funded infrastructure improvements with a modest rise in the gas tax and let Russia know that expansionism would be met with Americanism.
They adored compromise. They abhorred stalemate. They replaced red versus blue with red, white and blue.
To be clear, they weren’t the first patriots to do this on behalf of home and country.
Henry Clay compromised to save a nation rent by hateful divide.
Robert LaFollette did the same to bring a woman’s right to vote out of the back closet. Arthur Vandenberg used it to replace isolationism with the Marshall Plan and United Nations.
To improve their dismal approval ratings, today’s Congress should borrow a few pages from their notebooks. To wit, Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi, should do something wholly unexpected by getting off their soapboxes and into the batter’s box. Together.
Instead of waiting to react to the latest presidential tweet, they can show they’re ready to get back to doing the nation’s business.
Start with infrastructure. Who can be against America rebuilding its bridges, highways and cyber-highways? Make it big and bold, like FDR’s WPA that created more than 3 million jobs and renewed American pride.
Move next to tax reform to give the American middle class what the upper class takes for granted: a chance to live the dream.
Then bring it home on the most challenging terrain of all — health care — where you ask every player to sacrifice a little to achieve the unimaginable: a bipartisan, truly American health plan.
Mark Twain said it all. “Always do right. It will gratify some people, but astonish the rest.” We could all use a touch of astonishment.
Ours is a nation built with confidence and bred for challenge. We pursue things that have never been, to achieve things that never were, to realize what we want to become.
Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were neither ideological soulmates nor the best of friends, but when they came together they were two of the best things that ever happened for America.
Today, Congress needs a little of both if it wants to reclaim the right to lead.
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.