Republicans Have Given Up on our Democratic Process — Democrats Shouldn’t Follow Suit

The Hill, March 13, 2019


When I was first elected to Congress in 1976, former Rep. Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.) became the new Speaker of the House. Tip was a Democrat’s Democrat from Boston. He believed, however, that the key to maintaining power in Congress was for Democrats to always be a “big-tent party.”

At that point, Democrats had been in control of the House for more than 20 years, and their numbers were increased by the so-called Watergate classes of 1974 and 1976.

But the members of the Democratic caucus were not just liberals or progressives; they reflected a wide range of political viewpoints. The members included Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), Phil Burton (D-Calif.), Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), Bill Nichols (D-Ala.), Tom Bevill (D-Ala.), Dick Ottinger (D-N.Y.), Ab Mikva (D-Ill.), Sonny Montgomery (D-Miss.) and John Breaux (D-La.). There also were a large number of moderates like Tom Foley (D-Wash.), Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Dante Fascell (D-Fla.).

There were differing views and clashing ideas on a number of issues and, yet, members found a way to develop the kind of consensus and compromise essential to governing.

For a young freshman member like myself, it was an education in representative democracy. Every member — young and old, liberal and conservative, pragmatic and ideological — had the opportunity to fully participate in the legislative process. Subcommittees and full committees held hearings and markup on bills of every kind. Win or lose, every member felt like they were part of the legislative process, doing what they were elected to do.

The result was the passage of landmark legislation in difficult areas that the present Congress can’t even begin to deal with: the budget, all of the appropriations bills, Social Security, immigration, infrastructure, energy, education, Medicare and Medicaid — successful legislation enacted under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

A great deal of this legislation had the support of Republicans who, at the time, included a diversity of viewpoints as well. Tip O’Neill and Rep. Bob Michel (R-Ill.), the minority leader, had a close, personal partnership that supported the right of all members to influence legislation.

That Republican Party is now gone. Both President Trump and the Republican leadership are unwilling to even listen to opposing ideas. The legislative process is closed. The party has surrendered to one-man rule. It is a dangerous gamble that is not likely to end well for the Republicans.

In response to the extremism of President Trump and the blind loyalty of Republicans, Democrats must not fall victim to isolating themselves from a broad base of voters. That is a prescription for the demise of both parties.

Why? Because that is not America. The America I know is much more willing to embrace a diversity of views and ideas that are founded on the core values of equality and justice for all. That is the true power of the people. The “shutdown of the government” ended not because President Trump won the support of the people but because he lost their support. He did not reverse his policy of separating parents from their children at the border because he thought it was wrong, he did it because that was not what most Americans believed was right or in keeping with our values.

The reason communities across the nation are rising up to resolve issues that a dysfunctional Washington refuses to deal with is because people in those communities want to govern, to compromise, to allow different views and ideas to be heard in order to temper solutions with common sense. We govern best when we are willing to govern together. That process of free, open dialogue goes to the best of our democratic process.

The Republicans have given up on that process. The Democrats must not do the same. Recently, in the face of the dispute over the words of a freshman member, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Democrats faced a dilemma that threatened their unity: Should they adopt a resolution aimed directly at Rep. Omar and her offensive comments, or broaden the resolution to make it more acceptable to all factions of the party? Speaker Pelosi did the right thing in avoiding a dispute that would have created a greater divide between progressives and moderates.

The greater challenge for Democrats is to govern together for the greater good, not to splinter apart over the views, however offensive, of one member. The fact is that Democrats do share common goals: better health care for all, the opportunity for a decent job, the ability to give our children a quality education, a nation that cares for those unable to care for themselves, an America that understands that it must lead in a global world and respects the rights of all people, an America symbolized by the Statue of Liberty that welcomes all those who “want to breathe free.”

How to achieve those goals is the difference between blind partisanship and governing. The willingness to listen to the sum total of the views and ideas of others is what ultimately produces a path forward. That is the process that guided our forefathers.

There must be a “big-tent party” that reflects America itself. Unfortunately, Republicans have shut that door to a more diverse America. Democrats, on the other hand, now have the opportunity to welcome all Americans into their family. It is out of the clash of ideas that solutions will be found. That is not just the key to winning, it is the key to restoring the strength of our democracy.

Leon Panetta was a Democratic congressman from California from 1977 to 1993. He served as director of the CIA (2009-2011) and secretary of Defense (2011-2013) during the Obama administration, and as director of the Office of Management and Budget (1993-1994) and White House chief of staff (1994-1997) during the Clinton administration. He is chairman of the Panetta Institute, which concentrates on government, politics and public policy studies at the University of California, Monterey Bay.