Most of us probably find ourselves somewhere around the center of contemporary political thought, whether it’s to the right of center or left of center. Our movement in elections often determine outcomes, and we’re usually out of touch with outliers in both parties. We are unsettled by a Congress now with an increasingly hollowed out center, bereft of moderates.
Maybe that’s why it’s comfortable listening to MA First District Congressman Richard Neal. The dean of the New England delegation, and doubtless one of its smartest members, sized up the intensification of the national red/blue divide for New England Council members Wednesday and pointed to areas where Congress could actually do something positive.
While negative ads work in campaigns, neither party did the electorate a service by seeking votes just “because the other side is worse.” The lesson for both sides, as they try actually to govern, is that, as Neal puts it, “ideological purity gets in the way of good decision making.”
To Neal, the Democrats lost big because they failed to emphasize the issue of greatest concern, the economy. They got diverted by other issues (the war on women, for one) and failed to drive the message of how things have improved: the unemployment rate and gas prices have come down, energy production is up, economic growth has been a steady two percent.
Clearly, gross indicators are better than they were six years ago, but many people have deep concerns for their futures and that of their children. Downward pressure on wages remain a real issue for Republicans as well as Democrats; so too is worker participation. There are still 8 to 9 million people who have given up looking for work. The Democrats, he said, need to speak to people’s aspirations and not continue to split along grievance lines. Colorado Senator Mark Udall’s loss was a surprise to Neal, but not to critics who dubbed him “Senator Uterus” for pandering on so-called women’s issues, failing to articulate an inclusive economic message.
The Republicans succeeded last week by, among other things, attacking Obamacare, despite the ten million more people who have now health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act. It’s a time for introspection in the Democratic Party, said Neal, if they don’t want to be continually defined by their opposition. “Those who identify themselves as Democrats can’t be for every spending program. You have to show some restraint. The best social program is a job,” he said. In other words, it’s time for both parties to get real.
A deal on immigration today might not necessarily provide an immediate path to citizenship, said Neal. But, when the President says the following three things -“register, get in line and learn English,” – “these should be things we can all agree on.” Speaker John Boehner’s “natural inclination is to find a deal,” Neal said, and the new House may give him more flexibility. But, an Obama attempt to push the issue by executive order, it “will set off a fire.” Barely a day later, the New York Times reported the President’s intention to change the deployment of immigration officials, easing restrictions on the undocumented parents of citizens or legal residents and revamping the Secure Communities Act. Let the conflagration begin?
From his vantage point on the Ways and Means Committee, Neal also anticipates possible movement on tax reform (killing the AMT, or alternative minimum tax), trade deals and budget negotiations (including easing the cap on sequestration). He also thinks Congress will take up Obama’s policy on ISIS.
I asked him to comment about the President’s apparent inability to socialize and establish relationships with those with whom he does not agree, and who are publicly and implacably opposed to him. The telling indirect answer was to reflect on President Clinton’s skills, energy, engagement, and persistence in persuading members of all stripes to support his positions. “The whole idea of taking politics out of governance is ridiculous,” he said. But it’s hard work.
Neal is a veteran of old school give and take. I wish more states had congressional delegations led by the likes of Richie Neal.
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