More Rancor, Less Civility

The consensus on Capitol Hill is that something has happened: The place is more rancorous, less civil, more partisan, more polarized and definitely less friendly than when I first came to Washington, D.C., in 1981. Not that I was an insider; my post-election orientation trip to the Capitol was only my third visit to the District. You don’t have to rely on the word of former Members of Congress or lobbyists — just chat with any of the long-serving Capitol Hill cops, restaurant staff or barbers; they will tell you how ugly it has become.

I arrived at the end of an era, when who you were and what you stood for was more of an identity than your party affiliation. We came to represent the nation and our constituents — not necessarily the most vocal — and believed the public was not as partisan or polarized as the elites in the nation’s capital.

The terms “red state” and “blue state” were not yet in vogue. Review the National Journal voting scores over the years and you can see just how much it has changed: The political center has evaporated. As a moderate, my score was often closer to that of Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) than of Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) or Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Yet, all of us remain respected friends. And historically, there have been ugly periods of national polarization, most notably the Civil War and the McCarthy era of the 1950s. We don’t cane our opponents anymore, but the personal assaults today can be just as cruel.

One reason for the long period of relative cooperation was the existence of a national consensus about the major strategic threats facing our democratic system and freedom: fascism in World War II and communism during the Cold War. Many of us moderates and Southern Democrats served on committees such as Armed Services, Science and Space and Intelligence, which did not have dedicated partisan staff. It was refreshing to work with professional staff on national security issues without worrying about party affiliation. That changed with increasing polarity when these panels followed the model of more politically charged committees like Judiciary.

The last decade has ushered in a period of political and cultural division that is exacerbated by the fact that Members don’t spend much time together on the floor. They conduct too much “sound bite debate” in front of TV cameras and are often three- or four-day-a-week commuters. It’s natural and a little too easy to refer to the good old days, but there are not many politicians in the mold of the late Rep. Bill Natcher. A former Democratic Congressman from Kentucky who recorded 18,401 consecutive votes over a 40-year career, Chairman Natcher was known and respected as the model of rectitude and character. Sitting on the House floor, Natcher was quick to share letters he penned daily to his grandchildren.

This level of comity and respect was also a byproduct of community and family ties. Members that move their families to the area often have children attending the same local school, starring in the school play or playing on the same sports teams. Former Indiana Senator and now U.S. Ambassador to Germany Dan Coats’ son Andrew and my son Joshua were teammates on a Babe Ruth baseball team that won the Virginia state championship. The Senator and I might have had differences on policy, but it is difficult to hurl personal attacks at someone whose sons you’ve thrown pitches to in batting practice.

Another example of the value of getting to know your colleagues was, and is, my local church. Five Members of Congress (three Democrats, two Republicans) and the chief justice of the Supreme Court are members of our congregation, and it is hard to hate someone personally when you take communion together.

In fact, one of the ostensibly most competitive partisan events that Republicans and Democrats take part in happens not in the chamber but on the base paths. The annual Congressional Baseball Game sponsored by Roll Call is a terrific bonding experience. When I run into Financial Services Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) or Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), we often start conversations by recalling — correctly or incorrectly, depending on who you talk to — who struck out whom in years past. On the field and off, Oxley and Barton are competitors who understand the importance of good sportsmanship and are effective chairmen because of it.

Unfortunately, off the field, a team ethos now translates into party politics that goes beyond scoring on the opposing pitcher to metaphorically breaking his or her arm with personal diatribes that can end a career. The value of your ideas should prevail, not demonizing your opponent. There will always be a need for statesmen who stand up for what’s right, placing the national interests above party interests. The spillover from today’s extreme partisanship and polarity now affects important issues such as trade, where passage of sweeping bills by increasingly narrow margins is the norm.

Nor is extreme partisan behavior confined to elected officials or party hacks. In the lobbying and association world, we have those known to personally attack opponents and are quick to go “nuclear” on an issue at the slightest provocation. My own experience with this was the “K Street Project,” an effort to place Republican loyalists in key lobbying positions, and the attempt to block the Electronic Industries Alliance from hiring me in 1998. Fortunately for me, the advocates of these tactics underestimated the character, independence and common sense of high-tech business leaders who don’t appreciate brutish or unethical political pressure. I remember and value the first outside call of support I received, from Andrew Card — then an auto industry lobbyist. I often see Andy, now White House chief of staff, on Sunday mornings at a local eatery before he and his wife, Kathleen, a Methodist minister, head for church.

Ultimately, most big issues require compromise. Former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) wrote a very good piece for Roll Call recently about “the art of the deal.” Compromise is an important tool in politics, but for this discussion, I want to focus on the important role of debate and its unfortunate decline.

One reason for the loss of meaningful debate in Congress has been the changing role of the media. My predecessor in the House, Tom Steed, served 32 years — from 1948 to 1981. He confided in me that televised C-SPAN coverage of the House and Senate in 1979 would be the downfall of the institution. How ironic. If he could only see it now, he would realize that C-SPAN provides civilized coverage. C-SPAN may be for political junkies, but it has evolved to offer a wider range of topics. PBS’ “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” and NBC’s “Meet the Press” are other examples of preferred forums for policy makers to air positions on major public policy.

Another media phenomena, however, has been less healthy. CNN’s “Crossfire” debuted in 1983, giving birth to the so-called political debate show. When “Crossfire” first went on the air, I would get calls from producers who would begin their pitch by laying out the theme of the day and asking me whether I fit into the opposition role well enough to present good theater. After a few appearances, most public officials avoided that political food fight. Paul Begala, the show’s host from the left, says the show “reduces everything, to left, right, black, white.” Unfortunately, “Crossfire” is the epitome of modern shows more concerned about entertainment value than in providing enlightenment.

In 2004 it took a comedian — not a politician or senior journalist — to put a nail in the show’s coffin. Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show,” a Comedy Central political parody, had it right when he pointed out the absurdity of the “Crossfire” antics. Stewart told co-host Tucker Carlson, “What you do is partisan hackery.” He chastised the show’s hosts, telling them “you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.”

I can’t tell you how pleased I was when CNN’s U.S. president, Jonathan Klein, was quoted in The Washington Post siding with Stewart, stating that “he made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day.” CNN finally got the message — probably through falling ratings — to dump the host and cancel the show. It is not just the hosts but also the guests who perpetuate the destructive cycle of modern attack politics. It attracts the political extremes and the masters of the partisan sound bite who coordinate a given message. The end result is a network of identical talking (or shouting) heads.

Journalism has also undergone another apparent shift: moving from reporting to simply stating opinions. The result is that the “journalists” are now in the story, instead of merely reporting the story. This happens not just on “Crossfire,” but also on “The McLaughlin Group,” “Hardball” and other shows.

It is not being high-minded to call for more responsible media, because the trend of hyperbolic and negative programming is an analogue to the success of negative campaign ads. Most partisans, who either use or benefit from these tactics, defend the practice as a necessary evil. The reality is that they work.

So what can be done? Real change will require leadership from the top, but each of us can play a role. One initiative I have taken is hosting monthly salon dinners in my home. I invite nine guests representing diverse perspectives and experiences to participate in actual civil conversation on serious issues, not politics or fundraising. Congress, by its nature, deals with challenges, problems and crises (real or imagined), and Members of Congress and those interested in our nation’s governance often focus on their differences. In our salon, guests explore ideas and seek common ground. And even when there is no consensus, opinions are respected, conversations are civil and we invariably depart having made new friends and feeling nourished.

Former Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) served in Congress from 1981 to 1994. He currently serves as president of the Electronic Industries Alliance.