The Exit Strategy for Our Careening, Caustic Politics

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Every parent has had one of those days where you can’t catch your breath. One kid skins a knee, and another’s in a bad mood. The babysitter calls in sick right when a crisis hits at the office. It feels as though things are falling apart — and by the time you get to bed, you think to yourself, “We just can’t go on this way.” Fortunately, most of us don’t have to. We wake up the next morning and things are beginning to fall back into place. The babysitter returns, the client comes to his senses, and life eventually falls back into equilibrium. 

For most of America’s recent history, our politics has followed the same basic pattern. Yes, we’ve had our crises. Yes, political debates have sometimes gotten out of hand. But eventually, things settle down: Bickering politicians cut a deal. Sputtering pundits calm down. Congress once again begins to take up routinized legislation. It hasn’t always been pretty — but Washington has usually muddled through. At least until now. 

The last few weeks have been consumed by the raging anger and vitriol around the Kavanaugh nomination, but this battle is just the latest in an endless litany of them. Is there a moment in the last 24 months when you’ve felt as though Washington was not in flames? We’ve moved from the threat of government shutdowns to the fear of a nuclear war, from games of chicken over border security to brinksmanship about our health care system. Just when you think the fever might break, a tweet sends everyone scrambling again. It’s exhausting — and the chaos isn’t serving the nation’s best interest. 

Our temptation in many cases is to blame the White House. If only the president hadn’t done this, if only he’d refrained from saying that. But a closer look reveals that the chaos of this moment has been a long time in the making. For decades now, both parties have worked to ratchet up the pressure and widen the divide, needling their adversaries when they were in power, and acting as obstructionists when they were out. Slowly, it’s gotten worse and worse, from Bush v. Gore to the debates over Iraq, from the Democrat-only passage of the Affordable Care Act to Republican-only embrace of last year’s tax cuts. Many thought Barack Obama’s election would mark a reprieve — but things actually got worse. And from all that Sturm und Drang emerged President Trump. 

When does it end and what’s the way out? There’s really only one way forward: unity. Left and right — that’s the old way of splitting up the American electorate. Soon enough, the real chasm will open between those who want the institutions of American democracy to work, and those are just happy to let them burn. And those of us concerned about our democracy’s survival need to be ready to help that realignment along. Specifically, thoughtful, open-minded leaders on both sides of the aisle need to demonstrate that they are willing to put country before party. 

There is one clear way to signal this change, establishing a beacon for the clear majority of Americans aghast at the current state of our politics. We need a unity ticket. We need a major party’s presidential nominee to select as his or her running mate a person from the other party. We need the two of them — two leaders who may not agree on every issue, but agree that America is worth the compromise our democracy demands — to stand in stark contrast to those who would keep pushing the country further along its disastrous current trajectory. As people working through the group No Labels have begun to argue, nothing would signal that enough is enough as powerfully as a Democrat and Republic running on the same party ticket. 

It almost happened once. Republican nominee John McCain almost selected Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate a decade ago — but was convinced not to by advisers worried he’d alienate the Republican Party’s conservative base. But think how that might have changed things. Think, if McCain and Lieberman had won in 2008, how they might have governed. The last decade would not have been nearly so divisive — and we almost certainly wouldn’t have elected Donald Trump to the White House eight years later. 

That opportunity has been lost — but we can create another. The country can’t afford to let this long-running national nightmare continue unabated. Those of us with the wherewithal to turn things around need to begin that effort today. A unity ticket in 2020. It’s the exit strategy we need for a political quagmire that’s already lasted much, much too long.

Nancy Jacobson is a founder of No Labels, a national organization of Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to a new politics of problem solving.

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