Jul 01

Aspen Ideas Festival 2011: Panel Agrees on Washington’s Problems. The Solutions, Not So Much

Ron Brownstein

True to form, the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival kicked off with some big ideas on big problems. “We are here to talk about the state of the American political system and its ability to produce solutions,” said Ron Brownstein, political director at the Atlantic Media Company and moderator of the Aspen Ideas Festival’s June 28 panel discussion, “We Agree on Problems; Can We Agree on Solutions?”

Mark McKinnon

Brownstein painted a picture of just why the country can’t readily agree on solutions. He cited volatile voting that has produced record swings in partisan support, the highest level of party-line politics since Reconstruction, “a sour and distrustful public,” and a lack of progress on major issues.

When all of this is set against a backdrop of 9 percent unemployment, he asked, is there a way out of this morass?

An expert panel that included Obama and Bush advisors, an insurance company CEO and two former US Representatives (one Democrat, the other Republican) tackled this very question.

Is Our Political Division a Reflection of Public Sentiment, or Just Partisan Politicians?

David Axelrod

Chief media advisor for George W. Bush, Mark McKinnon said it’s the latter. He asserted that we have a fringe minority with a very large voice in Washington, at a time when the country needs to work together more than ever.

Thomas Wilson, CEO of the Allstate Corporation agreed, and said his company’s research backs up the claim: “What we found is that the Democrats and Republicans combined have a third of the market,” not the historically expected two-thirds. The level of trust in the government is at an all-time low, he said.

David Axelrod, president Obama’s senior campaign strategist, also agreed: “I think most Americans are not terribly ideological.” The advent of the Internet and its shortening of the news cycle, he said, means that every day is election day in Washington. This, in turn, fuels partisanship.

Is Compromise Between Parties Now Perceived as Capitulation?

Vin Weber

Today, “there is no political value attached to being bipartisan,” explained former US Representative Jane Harman (D-CA). The party division is so deep, she said, that there’s no reward for legislators who extend a hand across the aisle.

Vin Weber, also a former US Representative (R-MN), backed up Harman’s observation. While the general public may be ready to compromise, he said, the activist base of each political party is different than it once was: It is now less willing to compromise and more willing to polarize.

With Widespread Partisanship, Can the Country Still Tackle Big Problems?

Jane Harman

Answers from the panel here were not so unified.

David Axelrod insisted that President Obama successfully pushed universal healthcare, despite the political forces gathered against him, because he and his advisors believed it was an issue that needed to be dealt with immediately.

But Weber pointed out that a number of states are challenging Obama’s healthcare bill in court. To Weber this is proof positive that a single party may get a bill through Congress, but be unable to sell it to the American people. The advantage to bipartisanship is long-term, public support of a new law.

The president’s year-long obsession with healthcare caused more damage than good, according to Harman, who pointed out that healthcare debates “sucked up” precious brain power in Washington at a time when both parties might’ve been dealing with other, more pressing issues, like unemployment.

Thomas Wilson

She did, however, see positive progress in Obama’s decision to staff a bipartisan cabinet.

Americans are constantly making compromises in their everyday life, said Allstate CEO Thomas Wilson, and polls show that they think politicians should too. Politicians need to earn trust. First steps? Working together and addressing just a few, small but important issues.

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