Mike Dingman: Toxic politics kills good government

commentBy MIKE DINGMANJanuary 7, 2014 

The word politics is a dirty word. It has become synonymous with hate, animosity and hostility. The Capitol Building has become a battlefield.

It didn't used to be this way.

In the 1980s Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and Republican President Ronald Reagan engaged in epic partisan battles on Capitol Hill.

Chris Matthews, a former assistant to O'Neill points out in his book "Tip and the Gipper" that while the two statesmen would go to war against each other, they both believed in letting government work. They would not let partisan gridlock lead to government shutdowns or obstruction -- they would prefer to debate their sides fervently and let the winner be decided by a Congressional vote.

Matthews points out that O'Neill and Reagan worked together on taxes, immigration and peace in Northern Ireland. The pair built a strong personal and professional relationship that benefitted each of them and the nation they served.

In the 1990s a similar rivalry was born between Democrat President Bill Clinton and Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. These two men were similarly known as ardent supporters of their party's ideologies -- but also were able to work to find common ground.

Faced with one of the most difficult tasks for any government -- balancing the budget -- Clinton and Gingrich stepped up to the plate. Rather than staged press conference rhetoric the two men did the unthinkable.

They worked together to solve the problem.

In 1995 they met in private and worked out a bipartisan budget agreement that averted a government shutdown. In 1996 they worked out reforms for Medicare and Social Security that could have changed the entire political landscape in the United States had it not been for the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998.

In both of these instances the statesmen in their respective eras worked through the major issues of the day to come to bipartisan agreements, rather than promoting government gridlock and shutdown.

Then Al Gore and George W. Bush ran against each other in 2000. Things were never the same.

The election went into overtime and we all know the bitter partisan battle that ensued. Fourteen years later the nation is still feeling the pain of that election.

Our elections have become a nasty war between two deeply opposed sides rather than debates between different ideologies. Government employees and military personnel have become pawns in budget battles and there is no semblance of bipartisan cooperation.

Politics have become personal.

Simple discussions about politics both in person and in social media devolve into personal diatribes. The concept of an exchange of ideas or even political debate has been lost. It seems that the anger of the 2000 election has not dissipated but instead developed into the new face of American politics.

Every election I am optimistic that we can see change; I hope that we will finally start electing leaders that would prefer to fix our nation's problems than gain more power. However, the problem just seems to get worse.

I'm proud to note that this decline seems to happen much slower in Alaska. Our state legislators are able to work across the aisle to get things done. Until the recent redistricting shook up the makeup of the Legislature, the Senate was made up of a bipartisan coalition and even the Republican-controlled House has members who are willing to be persuaded by their constituents about how they should vote on certain issues.

As for our Washington, D.C., politicians, the change has to come from the people. Americans have to be willing to demand better and demand it now. Americans need to take a serious look at what is going on in this country and how governmental gridlock is contributing to the problem. We need to stop looking at politics as a war between two sides and start seeing it as a place to work together to better our nation.

This may all seem impossible, but the power of our government really does come from the people -- we need to take it back.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former student body president at UAA and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s.

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