November 1, 2011

We All Love America

It's time to rediscover civil discourse in politics.

Like a lot of Americans, my parents and grandparents taught me to treat others fairly, equally and kindly. I carried that with me into my career as a journalist, as a spokeswoman in the public and private sectors, and as White House press secretary.

At the White House, I was most bothered by how the political temperature in the briefing room had slowly been dialed up. When I became press secretary, one of my goals was to turn it down a notch, respecting the fact that journalists had a job to do just like I did, and to be thoughtful with my word choice. The summer of 2007 was a tough time for our country and was immediately followed by the financial crisis. The negative rhetoric I heard was distracting and unproductive. Rep. Pelosi called President Bush a liar, and Sen. Reid called him a loser. Yet, President George W. Bush turned the other cheek.

When I was at the podium, I would constantly ask myself, “If President Bush was watching right now, would he be proud of me?” When you're the White House press secretary, you're not the press secretary for either party that is in power. You're the spokesperson for the entire country. While it might feel sometimes like you're only talking to the 25 reporters who are in the briefing room every day, people around the world want to know what the White House is thinking. Your audience is much broader and bigger than you realize. I always thought about that: I was representing the president, and I was also representing the country.

Fast-forward to today and it's clear the standard position in Washington is to be mean to one another. Despite the fact that it's totally unnecessary, very unprofessional and would never be tolerated in the private sector, this divisive tone is tolerated in politics. In fact, we're already starting to see it going into 2012. The time when Ronald Reagan said, “We have no enemies, only opponents,” feels like the very distant past. It's also difficult to convince people to behave more civilly if your main supporters or political allies aren't adhering to those principles. As a leader, you can't live by the rule, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

We have come to a point where negative feedback is available constantly through the 24/7 news cycle, and the pressure to go tit-for-tat on attacks is high. Leaders in both parties are going to have to swallow the desire to respond with an attack in a way that's undignified. I struggled with it during my White House days as well—there is a fear that if you don't respond to every criticism, they might begin to affect your reputation. But the truth is, the American people are growing tired of the constant negative rhetoric.


Perhaps Peggy Noonan said it best recently: “What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace—a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we're in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative.” Candidates in 2012 need to rise above the fray, grow a thicker skin, and find their own voices to get the message across, rather than becoming aggressive.

Some of Congress' new members are outstanding examples of this. There were nine new Republican congressional women elected to the House in 2010, and many of whom you might not know yet—because they're quietly going about their business working for their constituents, rather than arguing with each other on television.

Ending the coarseness will be difficult, but it is also necessary if we want to achieve the dialogue and compromise necessary to solve our greatest problems, which have built up over decades. The percentage of the budget that's available to spend on the discretionary items is getting smaller and smaller, and that is not going to change without serious reforms—reforms that will only be possible if our political leaders recommit themselves to constructive conversation.

The collegiate sense that Congress is a team, working together to lead our country, is missing. Members of Congress need opportunities to get to know their colleagues better away from the office and build better relationships. It works well in the private sector, and used to work in Congress, too, before members of Congress were able to have more frequent trips back to their districts paid for by taxpayers. With better working relationships, they can look across the aisle and say, “We both love our country. We just have different ideas of how to get to the same place.” What is Congress elected to do, if not work together on the problems we currently face?

It won't be easy, but the first thing Congress can do is look back to the basics—bring back the childhood lesson to treat each other fairly and equally. If we want to rise above the rhetoric and solve some of these problems, we need to stop beginning each conversation questioning each other's motives. You might disagree with how someone wants to arrive at a solution, or question whether a proposed policy is the best answer to a problem. But disagreeing over methods doesn't mean the person proposing them doesn't care about making our country stronger.

Americans can help make this a reality. Democracy is a participatory sport. Members of Congress, especially new members, want to be responsive to constituents. They look to their districts and ask, “What do you want? What are you looking for?” You can choose not to read newspapers, call your representatives in Congress or attend town hall meetings. But our system won't work without us participating and giving them feedback, and holding leaders accountable for being out of touch with what the country wants. We can and will solve these problems if our representatives work to move past the negative rhetoric and listen to their constituents to make tough decisions for our country's future.

If we restore civil discourse in Washington, our country can move beyond the bickering that has become the status quo and ensure future generations enjoy an America where Washington is a city of communication and progress.

Dana Perino served as the White House press secretary to President George W. Bush from 2007 to 2009 and is now the president of her own strategic communications firm, Dana Perino and Company.