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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

Keynote Address: Bipartisan Policy Center

Thank you Bill (Hoagland) and we agree that Alice would feel that this event, and this panel, would feel like a return home to an organization that was so near and dear to Alice’s heart and career. The Bipartisan Policy Center sponsored Domenici Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force is a great way to start a discussion of what drove Alice’s determination to write this book.

The national debt just crossed 31 trillion dollars which is more than 123 percent of our national economy as measured by the gross domestic product, but back in 2010 when it was 13 trillion, which was 90 percent of the nation’s GDP, the BPC did what it was formed to do, and sponsored a bipartisan expert panel to look deeply at the problem and propose a balanced set of solutions. President Obama set up another bipartisan committee, chaired by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles and Alice was the only person to serve on both of them.

The two committees were successful in proving that the problem could be solved. Both produced plans that would stabilize the debt and put it on a downward path. The two plans were similar, not because Alice was on both committees, but because the contours of the problem drove two groups to similar strategies. But the politics of the day did not allow any plan to address the long-term deficit and debt to pass into law. The book details the plans because they may be of interest again in 2023, but the book also details the months and years of the hyperpartisan politics that followed the release of the two debt reduction plans, with budget standoffs, and threats of government shutdowns, and even threats of a default on the national debt. Washington was too polarized and partisan to solve this solvable problem. Our politics was broken long before Donald Trump came to town. And now things are worse.

We are going to pause here and surrender a bit of territory. Those who knew Alice in the final years of her life know how determined she was to complete this book as an urgent message to the American people and their leaders to make democracy work better, get more done to solve our problems, to make democracy worth saving. She made it clear to the two of us that she did not want this book to read like her final memoirs, Alice wanted to sound an alarm. Part of the ground we are surrendering is to understand there are many people who miss Alice, and they want to memorialize her. We get that, we miss her too, and it is OK if some memories of Alice are shared, but Alice would want the focus of this event to be on the deficit, the economy that is failing to deliver prosperity to too many Americans, and our broken politics, and what we can do to face these challenges. Alice wanted to sound an alarm.

But we are learning as we discuss this book that since THE Capitol Insurrection, alarm bells are ringing all over about the danger of what Alice called “hyperpartisan warfare” and the threat it poses to our democracy. We participated in an event for Divided We Fall that was based on the question “Is there hope or are we all doomed?” and we immediately knew had she been in that room, Alice would have had compassion for those expressing fear and concern about our current circumstances – there are lots of reasons to be afraid these days – but she would have found her voice rising in support of team hope and pragmatism. So, our balance is now shifting very much to the same place that BPC took this past weekend with the Un-Convention which we participated in via the internet.

Alice was all about balance, and this book’s message is also about balance. As Alice was writing it, she was alarmed, but as we present it to a world shaken by COVID, and the murder of George Floyd, and the January 6th insurrection, we are realizing that what the book now has to offer is the depth of the analysis of the problem and its focus on the question, “so what can we do about it?”

To support the book, we have been taking a tour around the country, mostly in conversations over zoom with radio talkers in places like Oklahoma and New Mexico and they know our politics is broken. They know there are people plotting to overturn the decisions of voters in the next election, and the one after that, by running for state and local office in positions that oversee elections. They want us to understand their fears and tell them we are not doomed to lose our democracy. Alice could not deny that we might all be doomed if we do not come together and change the course we are on. But she would say “We are not doomed,” and the book has a long list of things people inside and outside of the government can do to strengthen our democracy.

We can’t put everything in this talk, so you may have to read the book to hear our recommendations for rules changes in the Senate and House, proposed changes to the budget process, and proposed changes in the way we conduct and finance elections. Here we want to briefly address actions concerned citizens can take to help defend our democracy.

With an election coming up the first and most important thing citizens can do is know who and what is on the ballot and vote from the top to the bottom. And here we have some advice for those who want to talk about voting to save democracy in a non-partisan way, because even a communicator as gifted as President Biden has gotten caught up when trying to label the threat to democracy landing on the awkward phrase “Ultra-MAGA-Republicans.” It is not necessary to label the candidates who pose a threat to democracy because they label themselves by denying the clear result of the 2020 presidential election. Whether you vote for Democrats or Republicans is your choice, but in 2022, it is important to vote to support truth-based democracy by voting against candidates that would deny the truth and undermine democracy. The truth is Joe Biden won the 2020 election, and those who deny this fact represent the real threat to American democracy.

The book blends Alice’s experiences with political science scholarship and offers many causes for our long decline into hyperpartisan warfare including the concept of negative partisanship, which solves an apparent contradiction. Many people believe we are more partisan and polarized than ever, but there are fewer voters identifying as Democrat or Republican and more identifying as independents.

This is not a contradiction because the increase in partisanship among voters has been an increase in negative partisanship. Republican voters have not grown fonder of the Republican Party, but Republicans’ views of Democrats have been declining into the basement. Democrats criticize other Democrats as much as ever, but their antipathy against Republicans is harsher now than before.

I am going to put on my pollster hat for a moment because the messaging at the UnConvention (which was terrific! – everyone should visit the UnConvention website) but the messaging put a lot of emphasis on the large numbers of Americans choosing the “independent” label as a reason for hope for bipartisanship. The story is much more complicated because independents come in various flavors. Some have positive views of both parties, but this is a small subset. A much larger subset of independents are those who have negative views of both political parties, and the research tells us most independents lean to one of the political parties because they have so much negative partisanship against the other. They may have had cause to leave the Republican Party, but they have not abandoned their tribal hatred of Democrats. And of course, there are many former Democrats that still oppose Republicans.

Millions of Americans choose to get all or most of their news from cable television channels and other media that cater only to one side feeding their hostility and informing, or misinforming, their distrust. We have sorted ourselves and our communities, both online and in real life, into teams that share information and opinions among others who already agree. Many Americans are now more motivated to see the other side lose than to see their own side win, or to pass any positive agenda. Those who see the danger of American decline in our partisan divisions must break the cycles and habits that keep us apart and replace them with active efforts to reach across the political dividing lines. Many people are already doing this, and the book identifies several organizations working to connect people across political divisions for bipartisan civil discourse to build understanding and empathy in Congress, state legislatures, and in local communities all across the United States.

Hope for more bipartisan cooperation and compromise does not rest in there being large numbers of independent voters, or large numbers of moderates in the House and Senate. To quote the book, “Bipartisanship is something partisans do.” What we need in these troubling times is cooperation across the political spectrum, from democracy supporting Republicans, through independents, and moderates to the most progressive Democrats to be the super majority that defends democracy and the truth.

Bipartisanship is not dead; it is merely underreported. The media views partisan conflict and impasse as more interesting than cooperation and achievement but the last few years have been quite good for bipartisanship.

Joe Biden campaigned and won the White House on promises to work with Republicans and despite harsh criticism from both sides, Mitch McConnell helped deliver quite a long list of important bipartisan legislative achievements, including an infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act, NATO expansion, veterans’ health, and much more.

This must continue because one party alone cannot save democracy, and citizens should petition their Senators to join a bipartisan super-majority in passing the Electoral Count Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act either before the election or after it in a Lame Duck session.

Thank you,

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