Yesterday at church, the pastor spoke about the need to find common ground. Her anchor was obviously religious, but her message was broader. Drawing from a passage in the Gospel of Mark, she spring-boarded into a reflection on the importance of being able to come to a place - literal or figurative - where we can all share in the basic elements of human society. Trade stories, ideas, goods, etc. She emphasized that a crucial foundation for this sharing was to focus less on what makes us different, on what divides us, and more on the virtues or goals or hopes that we share.
She contrasted that with the no-man's-land of barren terrain and tense relations. Two boundaries, clearly staked out and carefully monitored, but never crossed. The zone each side thinks it is protecting by denying the other side entry and refraining from making any overture itself.
Her timing cannot have been coincidental, coming at the heels of the two parties' political nominating conventions and at the kick-off to the down-and-dirty election season. As I sat there listening to her speak, all I could think of was how perfectly she was encapsulating both the frustrations of the current political climate and the aspirational framework for how that climate could be improved. Also, I was doing a lot of thinking about how I wish her words were mine. She was brilliant.
The politics of today are, to me, some variation of that car-wreck analogy. The politics of today frustrate me to such a degree that I can almost taste it, but I can't look away. The politics of today are defined by bickering, brinksmanship, and boneheads. The politics of today are ruled by selective amnesia, blatant disregard of facts, and talk. Talk talk talk talk talk. Doing and acting and reacting and, oh, listening to all the talking -- well, those just get in the way.
The Republicans have made it clear that their main goal has been and is to put Obama out of office. The Democrats have made it clear that their main explanation of the past four years is to blame Republicans - both the ones in office now and the Big One who was in the White House before. Everyone spends so much time pointing their finger across that no one has thought to try to point it forward.
I get what it means not to want the other team to advance. I understand that you want your side to win. I can do the math that winning means keeping your opponent from scoring more points than you. I mean, after church got out yesterday, I spent most of my time watching and/or monitoring the scores of football games.
Games. Football is a game. A game that ends with a winner and a loser and a final score. A game measured with stats like total yards, quarterback hits, and fumbles. A game that, however it ends, has almost no meaningful repercussion on the finances, health, or security of anyone other than the men that were on the field for four quarters.
Politics should not be a game. But politics is being played like a game. Don't let the other side advance downfield with a bill or an initiative that could become a political victory. Hit the guy trying to call the plays until he stops having the energy to go back under center. Hope for or force some sloppy handiwork and then swarm the cough-up like parasites. Focus on the score that you are inventing. Ignore the repercussions on the finances, health and security of millions and millions of people. The people footing your paycheck.
The only thing these gaming politicians have in common is that they all share some of the blame for failing to find common ground somewhere, on some issue. I could cite example after example, and some day I probably will get to at least some of them. For now, the only necessary metric to reference is that Congress' approval rating has returned to the historically low 10% it hit in February of this year. Not only do both parties of Congress hate each other, but we all hate them too.
You will not be encouraged to hear that Congress is essentially out of session between now and the elections. (Those are in November. It's September.) They are leaving their summer vacation homes and returning to Washington for a quick little session of doing nothing. Then they'll spend the rest of the fall fundraising and campaigning and apple picking or something. Then they'll collect their checks for their $174,000-ish annual salary and sing a song about putting the country back to work.
We have serious problems to confront. The debt ceiling crisis that stalled government last year is rearing its head again, and all those compromises that staved off disaster then are already being back-tracked on now. The jobs recovery is slower than predicted, much less hoped. We're still technically at war. Some guys would like to return us to the good old days of barefoot-and-pregnant-and-quiet.
I know that as long as there is a two-party system, there will always being dividing mindsets on economic policy, social mores, and our country's role in the world. But I have to believe that no one, not even the guys and gals who are so consumed with their little game, are satisfied with where this country stands. We all, they all, want it to be better. We all, they all, see room for improvement.
So there. There! We, they, at least have that basic thing in common. Let's run with it. Let's get out some paper, write down some things we'd like to see happen, and let's see if we can't figure out a couple ideas for getting that done. I'll help get thing started. Folks on Capitol Hill? Why don't you all - Michelle and Harry and John and Nancy and Scott and everyone else - why don't you all agree to check your political ambitions at the door. Agree to stop being guided by those ambitions and those ambitions alone. Agree to start actually serving the people you were elected to serve. It's like customer service. Only more important.
And you know what, politicians? Even if you can't comb the depths of your strangled souls to add to that To-Do List in The Sky, remember that basic thing. That the guy you back-room brainstorm to publicly humiliate and professionally annihilate, he started off his life as a politician because he thought he had an idea or two for how to make his town or district or state or country better. Just like you. He might have gotten distracted along the way. Just like you. He might still have a good idea or a fair point left in him. Just like you. Find his. Share yours. Repeat.
We see nothing like this, though. Instead, we hear nothing but lofty proclamations about how much each side loves its country and the mothers that raised it. We hear nothing but pretty speeches about how we're all the sons and daughters of immigrants whose shoulders we stand on as we gaze at our house and our children and our 401(k). We hear nothing but puffery. It's like a used car salesman's pitch. Only more empty.
Enough already. Just shut up. You all should go. Call the game. Everyone lost. Especially the people who weren't playing.
Unfortunately, that's not going to happen. But what will happen is an election. A Presidential one, yes, but also a Congressional one. And I say that, regardless of which party you think you are, regardless of how much you love or hate taxes or Medicare or abortions, you think about who you are voting for. Think about whether they're defined by intransigence or thoughtfulness. Think about whether you've ever heard them have a moment of honesty. Think about whether they have ever said something concrete. Think about whether they have ever espoused the virtue of finding the common ground and actually seemed to have meant it. Think about whether they appear to think.
Because if we keep going on the divided track we've been on, I don't care who is in office. They will be President of No Man's Land. The No Man's Land of The Factions And The Home of The Broken. And that is no place I want to live.