In Dec. 10 CU Boulder event, Bob Beauprez and Mark Udall will discuss how bipartisanship (and friendship) happen
Partisans in Congress are often adversaries, but they can also be civil, collegial and, believe it or not, friends. That’s the message Bob Beauprez and Mark Udall want to convey, and they’ll be here next week to do so.
Beauprez, a Republican and former congressman, and Udall, a Democrat and former U.S. senator, will appear at an event called “Bipartisanship (and friendship) happen!” on Dec. 10 at 6:30 p.m. in the Glenn Miller Ballroom on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.
Free tickets are available online at this link.
The event, which is sponsored by the CU Boulder Center of the American West, will be moderated Patty Limerick, the center’s faculty director and professor of history; and Charles Wilkinson, the university’s Moses Lasky professor of law emeritus.
Beauprez and Udall recently fielded five questions about their partisanship and friendship. Separately, Limerick answered questions about the significance of the issue. Their responses are below:
Question: As former representatives in Congress, do you think the level of partisan acrimony seen today is greater than it was when you served? If so, why do you think it’s worsened?
Beauprez: Most definitely! I thought the atmosphere was very acrimonious when I was in Congress, particularly in 2005-06 as weariness with the Iraq war permeated society. But, it's far worse now, and far more personal. The "why" is complicated and multi-faceted, but a big part of it is due to the hardened polarization of our entire culture.
It seems that virtually everyone has moved to the far left or far right of the political spectrum and the big bulge in the middle where historically most people lived (a little left or right of center) has largely disappeared. The bell curve has essentially been inverted.
I’m convinced that there is still far more on which we agree as Americans than what irrevocably divides us. President Reagan’s words of wisdom have been discarded, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally—not a 20 percent traitor." Today we focus on division rather than consensus.
Since Congress is a reflection of the nation, members increasingly seem to be "playing to a base" of support depending on whether a member's district or state leans right or left in search of that critical 50% + 1 to win election. It's no secret that winning election, and especially re-election, is the top priority of virtually every member of Congress. If the electorate was more civil, more willing to seek and find common-ground, we'd see candidates reflecting those values. But, so much of society seems to be more interested in "resisting" and finding someone who will "fight" rather than finding a way to thread the needle of understanding to get things done. Politicians largely reflect the electorate they represent.
Udall: Yes, the partisan acrimony is greater than when I served. It’s worsened for reasons that are not hard to identify: social media, gerrymandering for the U.S. House seats, constant fundraising, little time in D.C. to actually build relationships with members of your party and the other party, and the permanent campaign are leaders are engaged in. We’ve effectively built a political system that values polemics over policy and soundbites over sound policy making. There’s less incentive and time to work across the aisle when you are constantly running against your potential allies and their party.
And it’s important to acknowledge that the American people are divided over a host of issues and challenges our society and world
Question: Is there a particular danger you see in today’s level of political discord?
Beauprez: America has always had great diversity of opinion and fierce debate. That's healthy. And, it's also protected by our Constitution. But, when we lose respect for that difference of opinion, for the individual, for common decency—well, then we've lost a vital part of the soul of American exceptionalism.
Udall: Partisanship is poisonous to progress. I’ve seen it firsthand and see it with more frequency today. Lawmakers appear to be more focused on how to force their ideas through the political process instead of finding ways to bridge the political divide and engaging in the hard work of collaboration.
Extreme partisanship also has larger opportunity costs. While our ship of state is rudderless and our historic leadership internationally MIA, other countries and less scrupulous leaders are filling the vacuum.
Question: As citizens and, apparently, friends, what things do you share, and where do you diverge?
Beauprez: Mark and I share a natural and deep love of the West—the land, water, wildlife and culture. And we share a deep respect and love for the greatest nation in the history of the earth and the critical importance of sustaining this republic. We probably also see a very similar set of great challenges that today's America faces. And, while we may differ on what some of the best solutions are to accomplish the objective, our hearts are largely in the same place.
Udall: I can’t speak for Bob directly, but I know we share a love of our country and our special state of Colorado. We agreed to be friends when we served in the U.S. House together. We also both hew to the concept that you can disagree without being disagreeable. I think Westerners have more of inclination to find common ground than people from other parts of the country. Our shared history which includes plenty of tragedy and violence has taught us that working together to educate our children, provide health care for our sick, infrastructure to improve our lives, and economic policies that balance profits and community needs must be the number one priority of our political leaders. Those leaders who are overtly partisan and political don’t last long in Colorado.
I’ll find out as will the audience (and Bob too) where we agree and disagree at the forum on Dec. 10.
Question: About issues on which you find yourselves in sharp disagreement, how do you discuss them collegially and rationally?
Beauprez: It's largely about respect. It’s also about perspective—looking for the larger areas of agreement rather than only differences, which are often subtle. Sometimes there's a little common-ground that can be shared. Sometimes there isn't. You simply have to respect that difference of opinion and move on.
Unfortunately, as I said above, much of today's electorate isn't in that frame of mind. The electorate—especially the hardcore loyal activists in both parties—don't reward bipartisan consensus; they penalize it. The singular issue that they are from the other party is often all that is necessary to define irreconcilable differences. Thus, the chosen representatives of those people aren't likely to reflect values different from the folks that elected them.
Udall: There’s no formula as to how to discuss differences collegiality and rationally. At times you have to disagree and move on. I think it’s also appropriate to disagree in public and with the press but with as little rancor and vitriol as possible. That’s leadership when you respect the other person’s point of view.
Another way to answer the question is I would approach a policy disagreement with a colleague like I would a close friend. You must listen, consider, not question the other person’s motives and explore any common ground. Humor helps. Bill Clinton famously quipped, “I have a lot of Republican friends. They are good people, but they’re just wrong.” Republicans could say the same about Democrats.
Question: Why is it important now to have these across-the-aisle conversations?
Beauprez: To use a very obvious example, look at today's political environment in Washington. On any significant issue, members of one-party vote "Aye" and the other "Nay." There is no coming together on common-ground and nothing gets accomplished. The national debt balloons, immigration reform remains unresolved, patients and providers go wanting for healthcare certainty, and the business of government lurches to-and-fro on continuing resolutions and executive orders regardless of which party has the president in the White House. Good government and what's best for the 330 million Americans living outside the beltway take a backseat to bitter partisan rigidity.
Udall: It’s always been important to have these across-the-aisle-conversations. They are always occurring in my experience at every level of government. But at the federal level, if we as a country are going to maintain our international leadership role (which is a form of enlightened self-interest), those now private, off-the-record conversations have to also now be held in public.
Why: To rebuild trust and faith in our democracy here at home and abroad and to help our leaders deliver on their commitments. When you have public discussions and leaders make commitments, those commitments aren’t easily discarded or dismissed.
It’s also important to have these across-the-aisle discussions because our public discourse has devolved to a dangerous level and tone. We are sailing into uncharted waters that may irrevocably damage our ship of state and by extension our society.
Finally, although we are living in most affluent and prosperous country in the history of the world, the challenges we face—income inequality, authoritarian governments on the rise, climate change and energy supplies, health care costs to name my list—will only be met and turned into opportunities if a significant majority of our national political leaders decide to work together.
For her part, Limerick gave a historical view of civic discourse in her answer to two questions, as follows:
Question: We often hear people say that the quality of civic discourse is at or near an all-time low, but as a historian, what is your view of this?
Limerick: Historians always have to say that the era before the Civil War, and the Civil War itself, were the "all-time low." But then we are also obligated to say that there was a crucially important issue at stake, and the crucial importance to the nation of the abolition of slavery has to figure in our evaluation of that dire period of contention and violence.
Maybe even more important, historians have to offer their fellow citizens the reminder that the recognition that the nation has endured worse times of polarization cannot be much of a consolation to us today. Yes, the mid-19th century was the all-time low, but that recognition does not prohibit us from recognizing that polarization and division are in a very bad condition today. We should be concerned about our current troubles, and we should take every opportunity to seek remedies and antidotes for these troubles, rather than saying fatalistically—and unhelpfully—"Things could be worse."
Question: Regardless of whether discourse is worse than ever or simply bad, what can regular citizens do to improve it?
Limerick: Citizens should head to the Glenn Miller Ballroom at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 10, to hear the conversation between former Congressmen Bob Beauprez and Mark Udall! Well, yes, that may sound like institutional self-promotion, but the bigger point is that we should seize every opportunity, first, to establish and celebrate our common ground, and then, second, to explore our differences and disagreements with civility, respect, and—maybe most important, curiosity.
I am very glad that we have received support that will position the Dec. 10 event as the first in a series, where good souls demonstrate their ability to recognize each other's dignity and value as human beings, rather than dehumanize and even demonize those who hold opinions and positions that may befuddle and bewilder us.
Not to engage in further "product promotion," but Boulder's entrepreneurial scene presents another fine opportunity: persuading antagonists and opponents to gather around to assemble one of Chris Wirth's beautiful jigsaw puzzles might make a significant difference in giving civil discourse a new lease on life, while literally solving a puzzle!