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Outgoing Sens. Bayh, Bennett: Political Extremes Are Out of Touch

December 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the lame-duck Congress faces impasse on several important legislative issues, Jim Lehrer talks to outgoing Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Bob Bennett, R-Utah, about the necessity and perils of compromise -- the often-touted, sometimes-practiced concept in Washington.
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JIM LEHRER: And to a few words about compromise, the common verb of action and reaction in the Congress of the United States, highlighted dramatically right now by the struggle over tax cuts.

The words come from President Obama at his Tuesday news conference. “This country was founded on compromise,” he said.

And they come tonight from two outgoing United States senators, Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana and Republican Bob Bennett of Utah. Both have had to deal with political consequences from their belief in compromise.

And they join us now from the Capitol Building.

Senators, welcome.

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D-Ind.): Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bayh, do you agree with the president that, without compromise, there wouldn’t even be a United States of America?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, there’s no question about it, Jim, from a historical perspective.

The Constitutional Convention was pretty heated. The small states and the large states didn’t get along, the agrarian states and the more commercial states. And, of course, you had the whole issue of slavery, which was extraordinarily divisive.

So, you know, we almost had 13 separate countries, let alone one. So, there — compromise was there at the inception of our nation. And it’s necessary if we’re going to meet the challenges that we confront today to keep America strong.

JIM LEHRER: Do agree with that, Senator Bennett, that it’s necessary for there to continue to be compromise?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT (R-UT): Well, of course, because there is no exclusive source of truth and wisdom in either party.

And within both parties, there are compromises that have to be made. Right now, you have got a fight going on within the Democratic Party between the president and some members, maybe a majority, of the House Democrats. And if they’re going to come up with something that they can defend in the next election or explain to the people in the next Congress, they’re going to have to compromise within their own ranks.

So, certainly, compromise, finding an answer, finding a solution that works is something that everybody has to do within your own party or across the aisle.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bayh you wrote in a New York Times essay a few months ago under the headline, “Why I’m Leaving the Senate.” And you said — quote — “The most ideologically devoted elements in both parties,” following up here again on what Senator Bennett just said, “both parties must accept that not every compromise is a sign or an indication of moral lassitude.”

Why must they accept that?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, many people in both — the bases of both parties, Jim, take an all-or-nothing approach.

And the irony is that that very often leads to nothing. I mean, people in our caucus stand up and they want to fight. I assume people in Bob’s caucus say the same thing. And I admire that passion and the devotion to principle, but if you just insist on everything, it leads to nothing.

And the American people are yearning for progress. And what they can’t understand is, if we can get 50 percent of what’s good for America, why don’t we do that, and then come back and work on the other 50 percent? This all-or-nothing approach just is not delivering the kind of results.

So, it is the extremes, the bases in both parties are out of touch with the broad middle, the moderates, the independents who constitute a majority.

JIM LEHRER: Do agree with that, Senator Bennett, that the extremes, both of the left and the right, within each of your parties, are just out of touch with what the majority of the American people believe and want right now?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Well, I don’t think there’s any question about it.

The American people in 2008 desperately wanted change. But this is a center-right country. They didn’t want a strong lurch to the left or a strong lurch to the right. When they didn’t get the kind of change they wanted in 2008, they voted for change again in 2010.

But if you look at the poll information, it’s very clear. It’s not the extremes that controlled those elections. It was the independent voters in the middle who said in 2008, we don’t like what we got from Bush. Let’s try Obama. Now they’re saying, we didn’t like what we got from Obama. Let’s try the Republicans.

But in neither case are they saying, let’s go to the extremes of either party. And people have got to get along in the middle.

JIM LEHRER: But, Senator Bayh, words like betrayal are used. They were used against Senator Bennett by his own fellow Republicans in Utah during a convention.

The word — and it’s used by most people — not most people, but many people who have taken a principled position and then go do a compromise. How do you respond to that, to somebody who says, hey, come on, you don’t need to compromise; just hang in there?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: What people want, Jim, is progress. They care about practical solutions, more than ideological labels or party labels.

And I have regularly used the example of my friend Bob Bennett, who is a good conservative. I mean, he’s a conservative individual through and through. And yet, for some people, that wasn’t enough. But my guess is — and he’s more of an expert on this than I am — if he had been put up for a vote to the people of Utah or to the Republicans at large in Utah, he would have won.

But because they had a caucus process, which is a lot smaller slice of that party, he wasn’t successful, even though his position would have represented what most people wanted.

So, it’s the triumph of ideology and partisanship over practical solutions. And that’s why Bob is right. The independents have been going back and forth in a constant search for what will move us forward. That’s what people want. And the political process, regrettably, is not delivering enough of that.

JIM LEHRER: But, Senator Bennett, doesn’t ideology have to drive politics in some way?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Well, certainly, you need an ideology. You do not want to address the political question without some kind of point of view. And, at some point, you draw the line and say, I won’t cross this.

But let me tell you a quick story.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: I was being interviewed in 1976 for a job with Ronald Reagan. I didn’t know Ronald Reagan. I knew him only by reputation. And, frankly, on that reputation, I thought he was something of an ideologue that I could not work with.

As the interview went forward — and I went just out of courtesy to the fellow who set it up — it became clear that it was going very well, and I was going to get a job offer. So, I finally said to the fellow: “Look, let me make one thing clear here. I’m not a true believer.”

And he looked at me and he said: “That’s fine. Neither is the governor.”

(LAUGHTER)

Ronald Reagan was the one who used to say, it’s better to get 80 percent of what you want than 100 percent of nothing. But, right now, there are people in both parties who say, we won’t take 80 percent. We won’t take 90 percent. We won’t take 99 percent. You have to be absolutely true, pure believer in the area of copper cents — he wrote a book about that — or we won’t deal with you.

And those are the kind of people that don’t get anything done. Those are the kind of people that opposed ratification of the Constitution, if you go all the way back to the founding fathers. And you cannot — you cannot govern a country unless you can say, all right, I will settle for 80 percent and work on the other 20 percent later.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Can I add one thing here, Jim?

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Yes, sir.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: You know, this kind of gridlock and polarization might have been OK — it has never been ideal, but it might have been OK in a world in which America just dominated the globe, militarily and economically.

But we have gathering challenges now that only compound with the passage of time when we don’t meet them, so we no longer have the luxury of being this enthralled with our own extremism politically, because China is moving forward. India is moving forward. The rest of the world is moving forward.

And so this inaction really threatens America’s future. And that’s why it’s so important that we begin to think like Americans first. Bob is a Republican. I’m a Democrat. But when I look at Bob Bennett, I first of all see an American and a friend. We have got to start getting back to more of that way of thinking, because, as a civil rights leader once said, we may have arrived on these shores in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now. And we need to start acting that way.

JIM LEHRER: But you — two of you stand.

You, Senator Bayh, chose not to run for reelection.

You, Senator Bennett, were — were defeated in a renomination contest in your state.

So, both of you are leaving. What does that say about the state of affairs?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Well, first, I want to make it clear that the cemeteries are filled with the graves of irreplaceable men.

(LAUGHTER)

And the republic will survive without either one of us — survive a little less without Evan than with me.

But I think the American spirit is still strong enough that it will triumph and that the people who are going to be in the 112th Congress, after some of them have postured a little bit, will come around and say, all right, this is what we have to do.

Frankly, I’m hoping that’s what happens on this tax deal.

JIM LEHRER: Are you going to vote for that?

Yes, have you decided?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Are you going to vote for it, Senator Bennett?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Are you, Senator…

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: And…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: … it’s not everything I would want, but it is certainly better than the alternatives.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bayh, are you going to vote for it?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Yes, absolutely, Jim.

The alternative is to allow the taxes of every American to go up on January the 1st, at a time when Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, is really worried about the state of the economy.

It would be, you know, terrible economics. And we would be fighting it out here, or those who have taken our places, in February, March, April, at unknown risk. It just would be deeply irresponsible.

So here is a perfect example where no one is going to agree with everything in there. But the alternative of doing nothing, and burdening the economy with these tax increases, not just for the wealthy, but for everyone, would be deeply irresponsible.

JIM LEHRER: All right, we’re going to leave it there. Senators, both, thank you very much.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Thank you.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: You bet.