This is one of the best pieces I’ve read recently. Bloomberg News assembled four retiring members of Congress and asked them to let down their hair and talk about what has changed during their tenure. The senators were notorious moderates Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Kent Conrad, D-N.D. The congressemen were a liberal Dem from New York — Gary Ackerman — and a conservative Repub from Kentucky — Geoff Davis.
The results are hilarious, candid and maddening. If this foursome was put in charge of the country (and perhaps it would also be necessary to stipulate that they couldn’t run for reelection so they could continue to be as candid and politically brave as they are in this interview), we would be a lot better off.
I urge you to click through and read the whole thing, but here are a few sample comments:
Bloomberg: Senator Conrad, when you were negotiating with the Group of Six over the deficit, you said, “If we can’t get a deal done, then my last five years have been wasted.”
CONRAD: Did I say that?
Bloomberg: You did actually, yes.
CONRAD: Well, first of all, I deny it. Second of all, it’s been an honor to serve! [Laughter] Look, last year I had a senior colleague say, “Your problem, Conrad, is you are too solutions-oriented. You have never understood that this is political theater.” I thought, Wow, it is time for me to leave. It really got started in ’94, and it’s gotten more corrosive. Speaker [Newt] Gingrich had a role here because he saw the only way to be successful in taking over the House was to really bring it down.
Bloomberg: Congressman Ackerman, you’ve been here 30 years. Can you define comity as it existed when you arrived versus how it exists now?
ACKERMAN: Your premise is that comity exists now. It may not be entirely accurate. It used to be you had real friends on the other side of the aisle. It’s not like that anymore. Society has changed. The public is to blame as well. I think the people have gotten dumber. I don’t know that I would’ve said that out loud pre-my announcement that I was going to be leaving. [Laughter] But I think that’s true. I mean everything has changed. The media has changed. We now give broadcast licenses to philosophies instead of people. People get confused and think there is no difference between news and entertainment. People who project themselves as journalists on television don’t know the first thing about journalism. They are just there stirring up a hockey game.
Bloomberg: We’ve talked about obstacles to bipartisanship … [To Davis and Ackerman] The two of you have served in the House for the last eight years. How many times have you met or talked before tonight?
ACKERMAN: We have seen each other.
DAVIS: We’ve seen each other.
Bloomberg: Senator Snowe, you’ve deviated from your party more than just about anyone. What is it really like when you go against the leadership?
SNOWE: People within your party used to understand that it is essential. People have to represent either their district or their state on the issues that matter and take those positions accordingly. But today there is no reward for that. In fact, there is this party adherence, and as a result if we don’t get past the party platforms that are offered by either side of the political aisle, then we can’t solve the problem. And we are not transcending those differences. That is a huge departure from the past.
ACKERMAN: You can compromise between good, better, and best, and you can compromise between bad and worse and terrible. But you can’t compromise between good and evil. And now people look at the other side as a completely different kind of animal and say, “They are taking the country down the road to purgatory.” It’s complete intolerance.
Bloomberg: What harms the process more, the media or money?
CONRAD: Money is a huge problem. There are really two reasons I decided not to run again. One is I really wanted to come here to do big things, and we haven’t been doing big things. The second was I saw super PACs coming and I knew as a centrist who was not particularly supported very strongly by any group, I could have [a super PAC] roll in and just dump a load of money on me and I’m not going to be able to answer.
DAVIS: I don’t believe we should check speech by any measure or merit, but left unchecked, you could end up with the 21st century version of Tammany Hall, where you have a small number of political bosses who control the flow of money around the country, limiting the discourse and debate for personal advantage, whether left, right, or center.
SNOWE: I regret that the Supreme Court rolled back 100 years of case law and precedence. It was my initial provision in the McCain-Feingold bill that was struck down a second time in the court. But then obviously they went quantum leaps further, unfortunately, and unraveled all the case law, allowing corporations and unions to dump unlimited money into these campaigns.
What Kent says is true. Because we are trying to build what I describe as a sensible center, you don’t have a base in terms of raising money. You are almost always confined to the MSNBC or the Fox News prism. That’s the way I describe it because it’s true. People see you in one channel or another and nothing in between.
ACKERMAN: We are probably the only ones who watch both Fox and MSNBC. The public watches either one or the other, and they watch one or the other hoping that the guys on my side will kill the guys on the other side. You can accuse any and every one of us, at least at times, of going for the ratings and doing and saying things that are popular or to try to raise more money so that we can get reelected. The media does that in spades. They really do.
Bloomberg: There’s been a slightly negative tone so far. Tell us what actually works about Washington?
CONRAD: At its best moments, the Senate is a place where people can come together. I have been part of Bowles-Simpson, been part of the Group of Six, spent in the last two years hundreds of hours in small rooms with Republicans and Democrats, and in both of those cases we were able to come together.
I will never forget the morning of [the Bowles-Simpson] vote. I called my staff in and went around the room and asked them what would their recommendation be to me in my vote. Every single one recommended I vote no. On almost every page of that document, there were things I hated. I told my staff that the only thing worse than being for this is being against it. That would be worse.
ACKERMAN: Washington has the ability to attract some of the brightest, hardest-working people in the country. That works. The problem is when you have some of the brightest, most hardworking people in the country who become a–holes. [Laughter]
p.s. Sadly, the first comment in the thread under this story on Bloomberg reads: “None will be missed. The worst attributes could be tied to any of these types and their departure could never be soon enough.”