Rob Riemen: Obama started his presidency with saying you know, “I’m the unifier [indistinct] Republicans, Democrats…the United States of America.” Apparently he was not that successful in breaking the gridlock. If you would have been President, how would you get a United States of America? How to do it, what’s the trick?
Jeb Bush: Well first all, I don’t think Washington is the definition of who we are as a nation, for starters. And I think shifting power away from Washington has to be part of the solution to this. And where there’s much more engagement by people in having a say in their own lives. I mean, you can’t outsource this to an ever…you know, larger and larger government and expect a good result. You have to assume that the people that disagree with you aren’t motivated…that they love the country the same way. I have deep disagreements with Barack Obama, but I don’t think it… I think he loves the country. And he’s just got a different mindset about how to go about it. And I think he’s wrong about that but I don’t ascribe bad motives to make my point better.
And as President…look at Johnson after… I’ve been I’ve been criticized by telling this story because people take it out of context like somehow I’m a big believer in the leadership skills of Lyndon Johnson. But when John Kennedy was assassinated, in a six-week period, he first got a budget that was passed that had a year-to-year decline in it; first time since World War II. And he did that by being all in and dealing with people that were not from his party as well as Southern Democrats that controlled the budget process. Then he got the Civil Rights Bill passed. In a six week period. Now part of it was the people felt you know, horrible of the assassination of Kennedy. And he got the tax cut—the Kennedy tax cut is really Lyndon Johnson’s doing.
All of this happened in a brief period because there was complete engagement. He cajoled, he was actively engaged. He wasn’t passive and removed. And he didn’t ascribe bad motives or try to demonize people that ultimately had to be part of the solution, and he shared the credit. This is not the—
Sean Wilentz: It’s called politics.
Bush: Yeah! This is not the most complicated thing in the world to do today. It seems like it’s almost impossible to do today, but there are thousands of examples of this happening in city councils with mayors, and state legislators with governors. And it can happen again in Washington. To assume that it can’t happen, that somehow it’s impossible for the logical way of getting to yes, that we just eliminate that as a possibility, we do it at our peril.
Randall Kennedy: I want to pick up, though, on a point that you made earlier which is in a way, would you say— What you just said about Lyndon Johnson’s all true…I have a lot of respect for Lyndon Johnson. The political culture in which he was dealing, however, was in many respects an easier one than any president would have to deal with today, and in part because of certain democratic achievements. There were with respect to gender totally different…you know, political culture, where women did not figure as important. People in American political culture, women’s issues, did not figure as important political issues in American culture.
With respect to race. I mean the fact of the matter is you know, that’s right Lyndon Johnson did a lot of good things, but the people who were the political class at that moment were virtually all white men. It was a far less variegated, diverse and therefore a far less charged political environment than we have now. So, in an ironic way some of the things that we’re moaning about are actually instead of us viewing them as altogether bad things…in a large degree they’re good things. I mean you know, when there are new actors, you’re going to have friction, you know. In the time that you’re talking about, in strategic places in American political culture, you didn’t have Latinos, and blacks, and women, therefore you didn’t have the friction. Now, you have that presence, you have friction. And you know, frankly it’s a good thing.
Bush: All I’m sayin—
Kennedy: It’s going to be tough.
Bush: All I’m saying is Johnson did…he got people to do things that they didn’t expect that they were gonna do.
Kennedy: No, I agree with that.
Bush: And that’s the sign of leadership that is the way you break through to this— The yet-to-be-defined system that we’re moving towards—it’s undefined yet—that looks pretty ugly right now, it’s going to require that kind of catalyst of public leadership. And it exists all across the country, it’s just not existing right now in Washington. It’s just not…you know, it’s dead temporarily at least.
Wilentz: And it is about politics in the end. I mean I think there’s a great deal of naiveté about how politics actually works. And this is where either wing—the Trump wing or the Sanders wing—don’t understand how politics actually works in Washington.
Bush: Coulda told the story of…on the Team of Rivals, about how the Emancipation Proclamation, how Lincoln got things done. I mean—
Wilentz: Keep on going with that movie. And show Lincoln—
Bush: Offering the Postmaster General—
Wilentz: —in the middle of the [indistinct]. It was all— Getting the Thirteenth Amendment through was about politics, how politics operates. It involves engagement, it involves understanding where your opponent’s weaknesses are, but also not ripping him down, but figuring out how to get it done. And this is an art which I think has been demonized, funnily enough. The idea is oh, you’re just gonna come in there and take over and make it happen—make America great again ’cause I can do it. That’s not how politics works in this country. Never has been.
And the same on the left. You know, the idea that we’re just gonna do what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna do it… There are other people out there, who disagree with you. You’re going to have to get something done. And you’re not gonna get it done by beating them over the head, you’re going to get it done by being a political leader.
Roger Berkowitz: Come back to the Randy’s point before. Because I thought it was really important. I mean I think you’re absolutely right that we live in a changed culture that has many more voices in it, that have to be listened to, and let’s say less…dogmatic partisan consistency. And I think one of the things that we have right now is we have a national system—a political system—that still sees itself as I think Anne said this before, liberal and conservative. I’m not sure that if you look at people around the country they’re all liberal or conservative. They have very many different viewpoints. There’s a lot of multiple identities going on in this country. Many people have three or four, or five, or six identities that they identify with. And we have created a national political debate that fits people into categories: left or right, conservative, Republican, Democrat, whatever.
And one of the things we may need is to pull back, not simply on money, but of a national conversation, and remind ourselves that you know, we may have to let people in different parts of the country and in different communities live differently. And liberals are gonna have to make more room for people living in ways that they find problematic, and conservatives are gonna have to make more room for people living in ways that they find problematic. And we’re gonna have to listen to each other in a much more intense way on a local level than we currently are, when there’s the sense that you either have to be one or these other things. And I think the change in who the American people are has far outstripped the political conversation. And we need to pay attention to that.
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