Last week, two congressmen, whose careers symbolize a spirit badly needed today, died. Within hours of one another, former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, a Democrat, and Congressman and Florida legend Bill Young, a Republican, passed away.
A cursory review of the rhetoric coming from Congress shows that we are not far from 1856, when passions rose so high that pro-slavery Sen. Preston Brooks clubbed with his cane abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner. Opposing viewpoints are now commonly dismissed as evil and unpatriotic, and cooperation is deemed heretical.
Consider the years when Foley and Young served together. It was in this era that Sen. Bob Dole, a principled Kansas conservative, remarked that his proudest legislative achievement was when he united with his fellow World War II veteran and senator George McGovern to expand the food stamp and school lunch programs.
It is difficult to imagine a conservative today bragging about expanding food stamps with a liberal such as Sen. McGovern. Surely, such a gesture would be met by a primary challenge, funded by today’s for-profit manufacturers of fake political outrage.
Many of the major achievements during this era were passed with the support of conservatives and liberals, and moderates were present in each party.
Republican giants such as Sens. Mark Hatfield, Pete Domenici and John Chafee were independent voices who would be outcasts in today’s Republican caucus. The fiscal conservatism inspired by the likes of President Eisenhower, which would regard the fallacies of supply side and so-called tea party economics as unrealistic, now exists in neither party. Today’s Republican caucus is guided by a combination of economic conservatism that opposes basic New Deal tenants and social conservatism that was out of step with Bill Young’s cooperative conservatism.
And although Democrats always had their modern liberal majority, unlike today’s almost universally liberal congressional caucus, there was a sizable moderate presence. Today’s Democratic Party suffers greatly from the loss of moderate visionaries such as Sens. Sam Nunn, Ernest Hollings, Dale Bumpers, Paul Tsongas and Florida giants Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles.
And there was the presence of reasonable liberals, such as Sens. Ted Kennedy and Paul Simon, who worked with Republicans on incremental steps to protect the vulnerable.
It is no coincidence for today’s Democratic Party that the Democratic Leadership Council, once a productive engine for moderate Democrats, no longer exists. Indeed, I believe that neither today’s Republican or Democratic parties would welcome in their ranks the only truly genuine politically moderate president of the past 75 years — Dwight D. Eisenhower.
These days, the kind of cooperation for the common good promoted by Tom Foley and Bill Young is dismissed as, at best, counterproductive naive idealism or, at worst, cooperation with evil by the Ted Cruz wing of politics.
It is long past time that we stop listening to the manufacturers of arbitrary outrage and division funded by the for-profit power brokers on the left and the right at Fox News, MSNBC or talk radio.
Kris Kristofferson famously wrote that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
We must realize that, as Americans, we have much to lose, and have lost much, in the present political debate as framed.
Luis Viera is a Tampa attorney.