02.04.10

Stop Washington's Gridlock

Americans are fed up with Congress and the president, but the political system can still be fixed. Strategist Douglas Schoen on simple steps to mend Washington's ways.

One year ago President Obama took office after winning a landslide election campaigning on the promise of change. Just a year later, many are left disappointed, even angry, after a year that has seen some of the most partisan politics to date. Democrats seem to have abandoned the idea of bipartisan politics and Republicans have earned the title "the party of no." Some may argue that change is not possible, but the reality is that true political change is within an arm's reach. Now, more than ever, is the time for Americans to come together and fundamentally alter politics through practical, citizen-powered solutions that will revive American Democracy.

Giving the American people the opportunity to see honest debates will compel politicians to be responsive to citizens rather than the special interests of the backroom deal.

The time is ripe now, because Americans, regardless of party affiliation, are fed up with the failures of the political system and want to regain a feeling of empowerment. Virtually every poll shows disapproval of Congress across the board and the honeymoon is over for the president as his approval ratings hover around 50 percent. The clear storyline throughout the elections that have taken place in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts is that incumbents are not getting the job done for the people and are being voted out of office. There is plenty of blame to go around, but the end result is that Americans simply don't trust Washington. They don't like what is going on there and they are ready to start demanding that the president and Congress start listening to them and stop politicizing every moment while hashing out secret deals behind closed doors.

book-cover---schoen-the-political-fix
The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grassroots to the White House. By Douglas E. SChoen. 288 pages. Times Books. $26. ()

Last Friday the public was able to catch a small glimpse of the greatness that can come out of a true political debate as the president and Republican members of Congress agreed to let cameras roll for what is typically a closed door discussion. Unscripted, the president was grilled by Congress and vice-versa. The result was a healthy, public debate in which not only differences were highlighted, but so too were areas of agreement and also compromise. The public reaction to Friday's discourse was overwhelmingly positive as Americans felt they were finally able to witness an honest exchange between sides.

Friday's successful trip for Obama to the House Republican Conference highlights one of the keys to successful reform to our political system. Namely, that true public discourse is a necessity to our democracy. Presidential debates have become nothing more than 90 minutes of talking points with the most notable difference between two debates being whether the candidates were sitting or standing. There should be completely unmoderated debates throughout an election and after a president is elected and takes office, they should participate in similar, open sessions as the president did on Friday. Giving the American people the opportunity to see honest debates will compel politicians to be responsive to citizens rather than the special interests of the backroom deal.

Involving citizens in the process of governing is paramount to successful change. Involving the People isn't just a means of keeping politicians honest, but it also serves as an opportunity to let people govern themselves and work as true citizens. In Alaska, the state checkbook is on the Web, offering Alaskans a chance to see where their tax dollars go and giving them a voice on how their tax dollars should be spent. A great example of how citizens are given the opportunity to participate is in New York City, where residents can call a single toll free number to access government services. Examples exist across our nation at the state and local level that can be applied to out larger political system to help bring about changes.

Another area our system needs work is the wrongheaded approach to eliminating special interests. A constant talking point among politicians is the need to eliminate special interests and the only way to do so is by capping the influence of large donors. This obsession with only targeting large donors has strangled genuine reform. Once again, the solution to the problem can be found in the American people themselves. Bringing more money into politics, but having that money come from small donors, is the answer to the large donor influence. Simple steps can be taken to encourage this, such as a tax credit for small donors to help encourage more citizens to donate small amounts more often.

Let's be clear, the politics we witness everyday is broken and needs to be fixed. Last Friday was an inkling of what is possible, but far from what is fully necessary. If Obama and Congress can learn from its success then perhaps the change promised can begin to unfold. A true test will be if Obama brings Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor to the White House (and they accept) for serious discussions about health care, job creation, national security, and debt reduction. If not, Americans hungry for longlasting political change will make themselves heard, incumbents beware.

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Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and author of The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grass Roots to the White House.