No joy for the nation in 2018 mid-term elections

Neither side should take pleasure in the outcome of Tuesday’s mid-term elections. Democrats may be overjoyed that they now control the House of Representatives, and Republicans are surely relieved that they have retained control of the Senate.

What we are faced with now is continuing legislative gridlock. It was bad enough when Democrats controlled both houses with a Democratic president, and at least as bad with Republicans in control of Congress and a Republican president.

President Obama did get a watered-down, imperfect version of his health care proposal enacted, and President Trump got his tax cut for the rich. But not much else of real substance has been accomplished short of keeping the government going — most of the time.

My guess is that with this divided Congress even less will get done than before. I believe we will see more intransigence, more bitterness, and more dirty tricks. And who is hurt by it? Just us, the American people trying to go about our daily lives.

President Trump has already signaled what we can expect by first saying he could work with a Democratic-controlled House, then announcing he would take a “war-like posture” against House Democrats if they try to counter the White House. In other words, “my way, or the highway.”

In my younger years, I was press secretary to Sen. Howard Baker, after he became the first popularly elected[1] Republican senator from Tennessee in 1967.

Baker, a moderate who always looked at all sides of an issue, used to give a speech before civic clubs and other groups in which he extolled the virtues of our two-party system. He pointed out that both parties were strong because they included a wide range of opinions. Some of the most liberal senators in those days were Republicans, notably Sen. Jacob Javits from New York and Sen. Hugh Scott from Pennsylvania. The Democratic Party also had its share of liberals, of course, the Kennedys and Al Gore Sr., to name a few. And some of the most hardened conservatives were Southern Democrats Midwesterners such as Sen. Roman Hruska of Nebraska and Baker’s father-in-law, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who was the minority leader in the Senate.

Dirksen, Hruska and the Southern Democrats had successfully blocked any meaningful open housing legislation in previous years, but Baker, who had become close friends with his temporary office mate Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, a Republican and the first African American elected to the Senate by popular vote, became convinced that fair housing legislation in America was long overdue. He went to Dirksen who, after much discussion, told Baker to draft a bill that he “could live with.”

Baker, aided by his legislative assistant, Lamar Alexander, now the senior senator from Tennessee, and with input from numerous others in both parties, crafted a bill and presented it to Dirksen.

My most memorable moment during my nearly two years as press secretary came when we gathered in Dirksen’s ornate minority leader’s office in the Capitol to put together a final version of the bill. Literally sitting on the floor cutting and pasting in those pre-computer days, we cobbled together a bill that incorporated numerous changes demanded by Dirksen and others.

The result was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act had come to be called. It prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex.

It was a huge feather in the cap of the freshman senator from Tennessee and the beginning of his long and illustrious career as an American statesman noted for his ability to find common ground among almost all political currents of the day. He was known as the “Great Conciliator.”

Sadly, we don’t have any “great conciliators” in Washington today. Perhaps the senator who came closest was the late John McCain of Arizona. Two other senators who dared speak their minds, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, are leaving the Senate at the end of this term. Sadly, Lamar Alexander, who should have learned something about bipartisanism when he worked with Baker, seems to have bought into the Trump camp heart and soul.

Now, as Baker predicted, the polarization of the political parties has almost destroyed our two-party system. These days it seems that our elected officials in both parties put party loyalty above loyalty to the country and to the people who elected them.

In this past election, the word “moderate” became a pejorative when describing a candidate who advocated anything other than the extreme party line.

So, now we have a divided Congress with both sides digging in to thwart the other. Will anything get done? I’m guessing very little.

The electorate at large also seems about evenly divided along party lines, voting blindly, it appears, for candidates who espouse the partisan line.

Our only hope is that the country will eventually come to its collective senses and reject this extreme polarization. It may take a third party that can tap into the moderates in the existing parties to bring this about.

[1] Until 1913, U.S. senators were chosen by the legislatures of their respective states. In that year, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified allowing the voters in the states to elect their senators.

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