Building Bridges

“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”—Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), October 23, 2010
“Obama turns to McConnell to secure his legacy”—Politico, November 17, 2014
Barack Obama may have made “change” the lynchpin of his 2008 campaign, but few would have anticipated that four years could bring about a transformation so dramatic as that encapsulated in these statements. For six years, Mitch McConnell has epitomized Republican intransigence on Capitol Hill, his taciturn demeanor fitting for the leader of a party resolved to obstruct Obama at every turn. Yet now, faced for the first time with a Congress united under GOP control, Obama appears to view the frosty Kentuckian as his most promising negotiating (and bourbon-drinking) partner. If nothing else, McConnell, unlike House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), at least knows how to deliver the votes if and when an agreement is struck.
To be clear, I am not naïve enough to imagine that today’s political climate augurs well for a breakthrough in bipartisanship. As the HPR went to press, House Republicans had just filed their long-awaited lawsuit against the president. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had penned an op-ed in Politico likening Obama’s executive action on immigration to the behavior of a monarch. Not to be outdone, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had taken to the Senate floor to suggest that Obama’s despotism might surpass even that of George III. Some Republicans raised the specter of a second government shutdown in as many years.
However, partisan rancor notwithstanding, I remain stubbornly hopeful that the next two years could prove a time of constructive, albeit limited, cooperation. McConnell, perhaps validating the White House’s improved assessment of him, seems determined to quell the latest shutdown fever. Meanwhile, some analysts have predicted that Obama and congressional Republicans may find common ground on issues ranging from trade deals to modest tax reform. Once the dust settles on Republicans’ millionth pro forma effort to repeal Obamacare, they might muster support among some Democrats for the consolation prize of rescinding the law’s controversial medical device tax and employer mandate.
For his part, Obama may have struck a confrontational tone with his action on immigration, but he has shown considerable restraint in other areas. Notably, in a move that drew plaudits from McConnell, he declined to press the Senate to confirm Loretta Lynch as attorney general during the lame-duck session. At the same time, he withdrew altogether the nomination of Sharon Block—a target of Republican animosity largely due to her status as a recess appointee—for the National Labor Relations Board.
Small steps, to be sure. Yet regardless whether these faint hints of compromise translate into any meaningful action, I take a broader lesson from the apparent willingness of Obama and McConnell to consider turning over a new leaf. No matter how great the differences between two individuals, groups, or parties, progress can be achieved if both sides are willing to engage in a civil dialogue based on some degree of mutual respect.
One of the virtues of Harvard I appreciate most is the ability of people of all political persuasions to do just that—to, for the most part, engage in dialogue and disagree without being disagreeable. As I prepare to enter the “real world,” I shall always cherish the stimulating and thought provoking, sometimes spirited but almost invariably cordial conversations I have had with students and faculty—Republicans, libertarians, and sometimes even fellow liberals—with whom I disagree. From the common room of my dorm to the common spaces of the IOP, and everywhere in between, we have exchanged ideas and laughs on issues both weighty and light—from financial reform and health care to the Irish setter atop Mitt Romney’s car. Even beyond such conversations, I appreciate the unique opportunity the IOP offers to work with and learn from speakers and experts of all political stripes.
I hope that the same spirit of friendship and mutual respect will stay with us after we leave the Harvard cocoon. I hope that the same feeling of camaraderie might follow us when we encounter one another beyond the gates of Harvard.
Then Harvard would truly have done more to advance bipartisanship and public service than all the staged photo-ops and carefully orchestrated golf and bourbon summits of Washington. Then we could finally see what can be accomplished when people of diverse and differing perspectives confront common problems with a sense of mutual respect.
Then, perhaps, we could live up to the admonition emblazoned above the Dexter Gate: “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”

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