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The chasm between government and governed

Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2010

From afar, Washington increasingly looks as if it has descended into tribalism. We've always had our factions, so some of the splintering is not new. But the degree to which leaders exist simply to perpetuate their tribe seems at an alarming high, thanks to the payback cycle tracing through Bill Clinton's impeachment and George W. Bush's contested 2000 victory.

The tribalism hit me as my wife and I recently traveled to Colorado with our kids, visiting family and enjoying the outdoors. We'd come across news reports about Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele sniping at President Barack Obama about this and Obama slamming Republicans about that. The contrast was jarring to the way most of us live or the conversations we have.

What struck me in listening to cousins and friends around picnic and dining room tables was that many Americans pay attention to their country's needs whether about health care, Afghanistan or immigration but often talk about them differently than our political class. They approach issues as problems to be solved, while Washington usually sees them as ways to score points. This distinction helps explain why a new Rasmussen survey shows only 23 percent of the public believes Washington has the consent of the governed.

Again, this is not new. The tension between Washington and local communities goes back to the split between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. And Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. addressed a similar gap in his 1991 book, "Why Americans Hate Politics."

But the divide seems abnormally deep between the public and their representatives, and that is not desirable.

Obama seemed genuine in wanting to close the gap, but he hasn't done so, either because many of his domestic proposals favor one side or because he has run into a recalcitrant Republican leadership. Now, we're headed into mid-term elections where tribalism will only increase.

Meanwhile, supply clerks, teachers and police officers keep going about their daily days, following the news but not approaching it the way many of their leaders do. The tea party movement arose partly because of this gap, although that seems fueled more by anger than pragmatism.

What gives me hope is that we descend into these periods and then rise out. After Dionne wrote his book, Clinton became a president who tapped into the yearning for merging left and right. At the same time, governors like Republicans George W. Bush, Bill Weld and Christine Todd Whitman and Democrat James Hunt became prominent by transcending tribalism.

Obama worked as a community organizer, so he has a feel for the grassroots that perhaps some in Washington don't. He could hasten our rise from this tribalism by being more of a synthesizer of left and right, not just a Hubert Humphrey on steroids, as Jeb Bush said recently of Obama's bigger-government approach.

Republicans equally could help by tapping into our problem-solving spirit, rather than being consumed with enshrining conservative talking points. We need more inclusive governors like those of the 1990s than polarizers like Sarah Palin.

Beating back the federal debt is a good place for both parties to start. About 400 people gathered in Dallas last month to participate in an electronic town hall that America Speaks sponsored in 19 cities. On a hot Texas Saturday, they worked through ways to reduce the amount we owe.

As my Dallas Morning News colleague Todd Gillman reported, they didn't identify enough savings to wipe out the $13 trillion debt, but at least they were part of an effort to get Washington's attention.

Since the president wants to make the debt a big issue after the fall election, perhaps Washington and the public can grow closer together instead of operating in their parallel universes.

• William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at wmckenzie@dallasnews.com



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