Back in 2009, I had the pleasure of going to dinner with Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. Baucus was one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act and it was within a couple weeks of passage when we met for dinner.
The table next to us was filled with insurance lobbyists and our dinner was interrupted once by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who needed to discuss something with Baucus. We discussed many things that night, but the main topic was health care.
I was not an advocate for the Affordable Care Act and I didn’t share many of the same views as Baucus, other than our fondness for Montana. I thought the dinner would be a quick half hour, but it stretched out to over 90 minutes and could have gone longer.
The thing is, it didn’t matter whether we agreed on things at the beginning of the conversation, the middle or the end. I found myself asking questions to more completely understand his perspective. By doing that, I understood and gained respect for how passionate he was in his position and how he believed it was the right way to go for Montana and the rest of the country. By the end of the dinner I also became 100% sure that he loved what he did and kept at it so long because he wanted to make a positive difference in the world.
The same thing happened when I spent time with Jon Tester, who is the other U.S. senator from Montana. He’s a Democrat; the top, or one of the top, receivers of endorsements and cash from Planned Parenthood. We didn’t agree on 98% of the stuff we talked about but there were two items we agreed on — get out of Afghanistan and secure the southern border first, then tackle a comprehensive immigration plan. I don’t think he’s changed his position on Afghanistan, but he’s probably pivoted on immigration.
I’ve often looked back on those encounters with appreciation because the disagreement was on policy ideas, not personal. Back then, I imagine they had many conversations with the other side to build on common ground and they respected the relationship. Not anymore.
What’s divided Americans over the last decade is our national elected leadership in the White House and Congress, at the state level in Madison and even our local representatives closer to home. The great multiplier of the gap is media, especially when we pick up national stories that lean one way or the other or statewide stories that promote one voice without balance.
And aren’t things pettier than they’ve ever been? President Trump didn’t shake Nancy Pelosi’s hand so the House speaker tore up his speech. Enter the great multiplier ... not shaking her hand and tearing up his speech were a couple of the most disrespectful acts ever seen at a State of the Union address.
Over the last several months we’ve called out local legislators because they want to be first to announce a good idea, then they want the other side of the aisle to jump on board. In this environment, it just isn’t going to happen.
What would happen if we asked our elected representatives to sit across the table from each other, one on one, and discuss a topic we (voters) think is important. An example could be improving K-12 education for all but especially those students on the losing end of the achievement gap. Yes, we can guess how each candidate feels on their own but what solutions could they come up with together?
Doesn’t it make sense that it has to start there? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a press conference or news release where more than one party is represented? Picture state Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, sitting with Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, discussing solutions on topics like roads, economic development and education. Imagine Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, and Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, working together on ideas like human trafficking and housing issues.
We would host something like that, and I’ll bet it would be well attended by folks who are interested in the solutions, not who came up with the idea first. What do you think? Please send us your ideas and thoughts.
Rickman is publisher of the Leader-Telegram.