Changing the tone

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 25, 2014

When you look at Congress’ inability to hammer out solutions on issues like entitlement reform and immigration policy, it sometimes seems like Republicans and Democrats live in different worlds.
In fact, they do. That’s a point that 8th District Rep. Richard Hudson alluded to during a recent visit to the Salisbury Post. In reflecting on the current state of Congress, its abysmal approval ratings and the inability to move forward on many major issues, Hudson talked about the intense political divisiveness within the Capitol and how it keeps people from reaching across the aisle.
Asked what it will take to change the tone, he offered a personal anecdote rather than a political bromide. He mentioned how things were different in earlier eras, when members of Congress spent more time developing individual working relationships rather than padding their PACs or plotting party strategy. One of his closest friends in Washington, he said, was Rep. Joseph Kennedy III. He and Kennedy are both wrapping up their freshman terms and mounting re-election campaigns, but there the similarities would seem to end. Coming from one of America’s political dynasties, Kennedy is a Massachusetts Democrat whose liberal philosphy is in stark contrast to Hudson’s, a Republican from Concord who proudly notes his high conservative ratings.
Hudson and Kennedy probably cancel out each other’s votes on a lot of issues, from expanding the food stamp program to raising the minimum wage. But they have a cordial working relationship that extends to after-hours socializing among the congressmen and their spouses. In other words, while they both hew to distinct political beliefs, there’s a point where they can meet and break bread. Compromise doesn’t mean betraying core principles, Hudson said.
In talking about a bygone era of bipartisan cooperation, pundits often refer to the friendship between House Speaker Tip O’Neill (also a Democrat from Massachusetts) and President Ronald Reagan (the subject of a recent book by Chris Matthews, “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked”). There’s a danger in painting too honey-hued a portrait of those days. Let’s not forget how Sen. Jesse Helms — a key figure in Reagan’s rise and someone Hudson much admires — took delight in goading Sen. Ted Kennedy, perhaps most notoriously in Helms’ verbal stab that he could not match Kennedy “in decibles or Jezebels.”
Politics “ain’t bean bag,” as O’Neill was fond of saying. Yet it doesn’t have to be endless tribal warfare, either. Whether it’s Congress or politics at the local level, the tone will change when politicians decide to change it. At the end of the day, there’s really just one world, and we all have to live in it.