Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

Political Power Players

A-list political pundits and consultants reached across the aisle last week to chat about what's fair in politics.



The Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates ways for Republicans and Democrats to play nice, held its inaugural Political Summit at Tulane University last week, and all the stars turned out. New Orleans' own James Carville, a professor of practice at Tulane, opened the event alongside his equally famous wife Mary Matalin. Carville suggested that, yes, the summit may be another gabfest, but it had assembled some of the best minds in politics from both parties.

  He should know; after all, he's part of a bipartisan marriage. In her opening remarks, Matalin jokingly referred to herself and her spouse as "the Jon and Kate Gosselin of bipartisan politics." Moments earlier, Tulane President Scott Cowen remarked that Carville, more Tiger than Green Wave, was allowed to teach under two conditions: "One, he had to be bipartisan. And two, there would be no rhetoric about LSU on Tulane's campus."

  It was a light-hearted opening for an otherwise emotional topic. More than one of the panelists called the current political climate between Republicans and Democrats "poisonous." The two-day summit was titled, "Taking the Poison Out of Partisanship." There were no illusions among those involved that the gap is wide and dangerous. (Again, Matalin said of her own differences with Carville, "One man's poison is another man's Kool-Aid.")

  Participants agreed that voters want to see the parties working together, and a CNN/Opinion Dynamics poll released last week underscored those sentiments. While it found that 49 percent of respondents didn't think President Barack Obama was doing enough to cooperate with Republicans, nearly 67 percent felt that GOP lawmakers weren't doing enough to work with Obama.

  The Aspen Institute's Walter Isaacson, a Big Easy native and noted historian, kicked off the summit by moderating a panel that sought to answer one question: "What's Fair in Politics?" Isaacson pushed the panel to explain whether party affiliation determines the answer to that question. "We're here to see if we can pull the plug on the partisan politics that have taken over the past 30 years," he said.

  Hilary Rosen, managing partner of the Brunswick Group and editor-at-large for, said the 24-hour news cycle and the plethora of online political sources have given voters more ways to find out about candidates and what separates them from their competition. That alone gives the electorate enough fodder to drive politicians farther apart. "The times call for a more well-rounded understanding of candidates," she said.

  The media, especially blogs and other Internet-driven sources, then go on to play up the differences, said Tad Devine, a leading Democratic strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Sen. John Kerry. "Conflict equals coverage," he said. "If you want press attention, attack someone. You'll get a lot of attention that way. ... Technology more than any other factor is driving this."

  Charlie Black, advisor to the late President Ronald Reagan and both Bush presidencies, said it's difficult for campaigns to steer clear of such acrimonious actions, chiefly because it helps separate the candidates in a race. "The purpose of a campaign is to show differences," Black noted.

  The panelists, however, agreed that campaigns could take some simple steps to lower the temperature. For instance, Kiki McLean, a Democratic strategist with Porter Novelli and former advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others, said it could be as easy as face-to-face meetings. In short, personal relationships could be a catalyst for playing nice. "I think it's easier when people know each other and it's not just some guy you're working against who's sitting in another hotel somewhere across the country," she said.

  Additionally, Steve Schmidt, who formerly served as campaign manager for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and was a senior advisor to U.S. Sen. John McCain on his 2008 presidential bid, said both McCain (who told his staff not to get into the racially charged politics of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) and Obama (who urged his staff not to play dirty) did help ratchet down the rhetoric last year. "It's up to the candidates to set the tone," Schmidt said.

  Schmidt added, laughingly, that it's a much better system than what exists elsewhere on the globe. "In this country, we don't throw Molotov cocktails at each other," he said. "We run negative ads."

  But even on that level, where partisan politics can get venomous, voters more times than not spot the "dirty" candidate, suggested Jeff Larson, chairman of the Republican-charged North Star Leadership PAC. "Those who are perceived as running negative campaigns aren't winning races," he said.

  To no one's surprise, the two-day summit, while filled with political superstars, failed to devise a solution to poisonous party divides. Instead, the participants seemed to agree that bipartisanship can happen when necessary — really necessary. There appeared to be a consensus, meanwhile, that Republicans and Democrats will continue to hurl bombs at each other the rest of the time. That may be far short of bipartisanship, but it's a start.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at

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