Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Practically speaking: Ideas for a more perfect union

April 2, 2012 by David Thornburgh


Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Sen. Richard Russell, December 17, 1963. Wikimedia Commons.

In recent months, Congress’s approval rating has hovered around 10 percent, sometimes plunging into high single digits. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet pointed out last fall that a higher percentage of people approve of America becoming a Communist country than approve of the way Congress is carrying out its business. What’s wrong with this picture? More important, how can we restore the trust in our governing bodies that we so desperately need?


Every pundit worth his or her press credentials now bemoans our current hyper-partisan state of affairs, suggesting that the “real problem here” is a lack of political will on the part of our elected representatives. “They just can’t make tough choices the way they used to,” some will suggest. That kind of chatter, while cathartic, leads us nowhere. It’s easy to describe the world as it should be. It is far more difficult, but far more useful, to reflect on how to navigate the world as it is—and how we can change it for the better.


Further, I’m not convinced that our elected leaders of the past were imbued with the kind of tough-choice-making political will that we’re led to believe. And any armchair student of history knows that today’s debates are no more or less framed by “politics” than they were in the past. As frustrating as today seems to be, politics in America has always been a contact sport. The leaders who have made history, however, are those who knew how to play the game and play it well.


So having laid out what’s NOT working, and how handwringing pleas for a less political or more virtuous practice of politics seem misplaced, what is to be done?


In this column and subsequent ones I’d like to explore the tools and techniques public leaders actually use to get things done, to move more than just a slim majority of a decision-making body to a conclusion. As any scholar of Lyndon B. Johnson or Ronald Reagan can tell you, there is almost always a way to bring people to the negotiating table. Studying the tactical details of political deal making may not inspire idealism. It can and often does, however, lay out the tools of effective leadership for those who are interested in practicing the art.


Let’s begin this journey by embracing and underlining the value of legitimate political compromise, something that in recent years seems to have fallen out of fashion. Springsteen-like cries of “no defeat, no surrender” now echo through political rallies and into the halls of Congress. And yet compromise is fundamental to governing; indeed, Congress is a body that requires compromise, because Congress was itself the child of compromise.


When the Constitutional Convention’s delegates gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, a sharp disagreement erupted over the nature of Congressional representation. Several larger states advocated for the Virginia Plan, which would have allocated representation based on states’ populations. Smaller states, worried that such a plan would sap their influence, advocated instead for the New Jersey Plan, which called for equal representation. After weeks of fierce (but secret!) debate, the Great Compromise was reached and two distinctive legislative bodies were formed: a Senate in which states had equal representation and a House in which representation was proportional.


Of course, coming to compromise has never been easy, and convincing politicians and voters of its value, in perception and in reality, won’t be easy either. Just wishing for it won’t make it so. What I’m interested in, a la Malcolm Gladwell, is the possibilities for progress, the little moves in the practice of politics that can make a big difference.


Like what? Well, let’s start by paying attention to what effective and respected political leaders DO to bring their colleagues along to actually make tough decisions. We’ll find, I think, that the true masters of the political arts are those who take the time to learn about their colleagues’ idiosyncrasies, pet projects, and dream committee assignments and use that information to win their support and their votes. As any fan of Robert Caro, the epic biographer of Lyndon Johnson, will tell you, it was Johnson’s ability to read people—their hopes and particularly their fears—that made him the Master of the Senate.


Stay tuned. This should be fun.


David B. Thornburgh is the Executive Director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.


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