Politics: Now Threatening the State of Our Union

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a panel presentation — part of Chicago Ideas Week — titled "Politics: The State of the Union," featuring David Gregory of NBC's Meet the Press, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former political director of ABC News Amy Walter and more.

The speakers discussed the current state of politics in America, and as you might imagine, healthcare policy and its role in the current government shutdown and debt ceiling negotiations took a starring role in the discussions.

A majority of the speakers cited an inability to cross party lines as a key reason for the current state of dysfunction in Washington.

Why are so many members of Congress unwilling to meet in the middle?

Mayor Emanuel blamed redistricting, saying he had "practiced the craft himself," which has led to less competitive races and the election of candidates who are less likely to be moderate in their views. Rather than voters selecting their representatives, "representatives are now picking their voters," the mayor said.

Another panelist, Cornell Belcher, a pollster for both the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, said "gerrymandering has been taken from an art to a science," backed by big data, which has allowed for the election of "extreme" candidates "in both parties in safe districts."

As a result, divisive issues like healthcare reform become breaking points that stall much more critical legislation — such as continuing resolutions to fund the government and debt ceiling limits.

David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager, called the current political system a "great threat the economy."

How can this dysfunctional state of the union be fixed? Mayor Emanuel explained that in order to overcome differences and restore trust, political strategists for both parties must not accept the demands of the extreme, and instead move forward with what he called a "bunt, single or double" rather than a home run. "Home runs" almost never happen in politics when different parties control the House and Senate, he noted.

One of the most powerful comments of the night, however, came from Steve Schmidt, vice chairman of public affairs at Edelman and a top Republican strategist, who, as he explained the story of how the late Democratic Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouy and Republican Senator Bob Dole met at an army hospital after sustaining injuries in World War II and, during their political careers, worked together on numerous pieces of legislation. He said, that perhaps there is a generation that doesn't understand — like the previous generation did — "what real enemies are."

Let's hope for the sake of economy that current leaders remember that their political adversaries aren't true enemies. Rather than overcoming the other, each party needs to be willing to compromise so that legislation that's not perfect (in either party's view), but better than a shutdown and default, can make its way through Congress.

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