This was alumni weekend at Emory University, possibly because they don’t have a football team.
Part of the program on Saturday was a panel of law school graduates discussing the polarized state of American politics: Former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (’62), U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop (’71) Attorney General Sam Olens (’83); former congressman Elliott Levitas (’52).
Herding the cats as moderator was Yvette Miller (’88) presiding judge of the state Court of the Appeals. Tom Clark, associate professor of political science, also sat in on the discussion.
Here’s the video turned out by Emory:
Below is a rough, incomplete transcript.
For the last few weeks, Nunn has been engaged in an unofficial campaign to rally the nation’s political elders – Republican and Democrat – in support of a bipartisan deal to address the federal deficit and avoidance of the “fiscal cliff” that looms in January. So he loomed largest in the discussion.
The panel closed with a brief skirmish over voter ID between Bishop and Olens.
Nunn:”What affects us the most right now is the fiscal problem. The world is in a very fragile economy. The United States is in a fragile recovery. Thankfully, we are recovering – but it’s very fragile. We have a fiscal cliff coming in January that almost everybody, whether to the left or right economically, says will take us into recession because it’s a massive tax increase and a very large spending cut….
“The demographics have been driving our problem for a long time. Every year that you let it go by, you basically let it go further, and it gets harder. The demographics are basically the blessings of longer life. We’re living longer, and we have not adjusted our social programs to that. When we passed Social Security and Medicare – don’t hold me to the exact numbers – in the mid-60s. Now life expectancy is from 78 to 82 or 83. No insurance company can write an actuarial policy on that basis. They would go broke. But we haven’t squared that with the American people….
“Right now both political parties are not using common sense, they’re not using arithmetic. And they are basically misleading people every day….”
Levitas: “[The tea party] made two commitments. One of those commitments was..’We’re not going to compromise. We’re going to come up to Washington, and we’re going to stand for what we stand for, take it or leave it.
“They said, ‘Furthermore, we’re going to read the Constitution of the United States word for word.’ They did. Now, I have found that to be one of the great ironies of modern-day politics. …I may be wrong, but I don’t know of any political document that contains more compromises than the U.S. Constitution.
“This nation cannot work without accommodation and compromise. We have already – each one of us in this room – paid a price for the uncompromising attitude of people in the Congress of the United States. When the credit rating of this nation was downgraded for the first time in my lifetime, it wasn’t done just because of the massive debt. That was part of it. But it was done because the rating agencies looked at the Congress of the United States and didn’t think these people were capable of governing because they couldn’t reach accommodation and compromise….”
Bishop: “…I’ve been in Congress nearly 20 years. I have seen this polarization develop, and it’s a phenomenon that’s very, very dangerous. …[Holds up a book.] Let me just highlight a publication that has written about it, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. It’s called, ‘It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Political System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.’
“…They have documented the trends that have gotten us to the place where we are. Among them are the fact that we have instant news cycles. [Members of Congress] don’t spend much time together.”
Bishop bemoaned the lack of opportunity for members of Congress to socialize or to travel together.
”Relationships are key to the ability to resolve issues, whether it’s practicing law, in the Legislature or in Congress. You’ve got to have a personal relationship with your colleagues in order to go past the issues….”
Olens: “I had a great mentor in my political career, and that’s Senator Isakson, who lives five minutes from me. He fits that mode, just like Senator Nunn, of someone who has tried to solve problems rather than create problems….
“When I was in law school here, Senator Nunn – I could think of “Scoop” Jackson, a couple other folks – people that solved national problems. You’d be hard pressed to think of five now, out of 535 federal elected officials in Congress at present….
“I think the public desires honesty more than anything else. …The public doesn’t get mad at you if you disagree with them. The public gets made at you if you’re inaccessible, if you don’t make your opinions known to them.
“This nation is being governed by continuing resolutions with little legislation being passed. And I tend to think of governance by continuing resolution as government by the inept….
“I recall when President Bush sought to revise Social Security. It was not pretty. And of course the problem is harder to solve now…
“The state of Georgia is run very different from D.C. In the Georgia House, the minority leader is Stacey Abrams. Stacey works very well with the folks on the other side of the aisle. With most significant legislation, she’s in the meetings, helping to finalize the form of the bill. She is constructive. On the Senate side, Jason Carter is very engaged and helpful in that regard….”
Nunn: “We had furious arguments. These were big issues. But we respected each other. …I never passed a major piece of legislation in 21 years where I didn’t have a Republican partner. Not one. We always tried to find a way to govern. ..
“The other dimension of this is that the people at home have to be part of this. The wings of both parties are flapping very hard. They’re very active, they put big money in, they’re extremely involved, and the middle doesn’t get very involved.
“The wings have every right to get involved. You have every right to have a tea party. But the tea party and others like them, left and right, when it comes to governing – if you let them govern, or try to govern, it’s like the dog who catches the car. They don’t know how to govern, because they don’t know how to compromise. They don’t know how to work together. They don’t know how to listen….
Nunn credited Isakson’s bipartisanship, but paid special attention to U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is at the center of a bipartisan effort to reach a deal on the federal deficit and faces a 2014 re-election bid.
”Saxby’s big problem now – what does he do in the primary? Is it a sin to work together? I think that the middle has to rise up. They have to get involved. One of the questions you need to ask people running for federal office is not, what is your position, but are you willing to consider for just a moment that you might not be correct?
“Even if you are 100 percent sure that your political party or your candidate is right, and the other party is 100 percent wrong, no party after this election is going to be able to impose its will fiscally on the other….
As the discussion turned to the growing diversity of the American electorate, the congressman from Albany noted the low rate of voter participation in the U.S., citing it as a cause of political polarization.
Bishop: “Perhaps we need some incentive so that people either get tax breaks to participate, or they get penalized if they don’t participate. But even in the worse countries in the world, they’ve got greater participation than we have…”
That, of course, led Bishop to the topic of voter ID.
”After the 2008 election, there was a strategy developed to try to suppress the vote. Eliminate early voting, or reduce the length of early voting, because certain demographics found that convenient to participate, and it drove up turnout, which helped President Obama get elected. So certain politicians said we need to do something so these people don’t vote. Let’s make it more restrictive by requiring photo ID.”
Bishop sat right next to Olens, who has defended Georgia’s voter ID law for the last two years. He offered a quick rebuttal:
Olens: “Speaking of diversity, I’m the ‘R’ on the panel. So let me just say that when Michelle Obama comes to Atlanta, and you want her to autograph your new book, you need to show a photo ID to get in line.
“When you want to go visit an individual in their federal office, you have to show a photo ID. When you want to go to Target this afternoon and give them a check, you have to give them a photo ID. Why all the sudden it’s a conspiracy against minorities voting to show a photo ID, to me is as foolish as criticizing the tea party for actually wanting to avoid the fiscal cliff. I think those kinds of comments is what this panel was intended to reduce.”
The panel wrapped up shortly afterwards.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider