Lee H. Hamilton
I was chatting with a group of students the other day when one of them looked me in the eye and commented, "You're very tough on journalists." I had to plead guilty. Of course I'm tough on journalists. Maybe even as tough on them as they are on politicians.
Politicians and commentators these days like to point to an array of threats to our constitutional system. There's one, though, that doesn't get nearly as much attention as it should — our national debt. We may not yet be in imminent danger of fiscal collapse, but we're moving into uncharted waters. We are among the most indebted nations in the world, and it's only getting worse. Thanks to our new tax law, we're staring ahead at routine federal budget deficits north of $1 trillion each year — compared to what now seems like a paltry $665 billion in 2017.
For the most part, we Americans value expertise. We want our physicians to possess knowledge and experience. We want our lawyers to know the law inside out. We want our clergymen, our engineers, our farmers to bring the kind of proficiency and skill to their work that comes only with familiarity and practice. So here's a question. Why is it that the more expertise politicians' gain in their field, the more we deride them?
In a world riven by tension, there's one skill that stands above all others: The ability to resolve conflict. It is the paramount challenge of our time. There are so many divisions that fracture our communities, states and nations, that the ability to create common ground — to bring people together, rather than drive them apart — has become an indispensable political need.
We're at a watershed moment in American political history. Our Congress — I'm talking about the people's body, the institution created by our founders, and not just the men and women who currently inhabit it — is in deep trouble. And no one seems to be offering hope.
You could choose any number of marquee dilemmas to illustrate how broken congressional politics has become. Guns, Russian interference, climate change — Americans want progress on all of them and get little from Capitol Hill. But to my mind, nothing illustrates the dire state of our politics better than how we act on the federal budget.
Call me a contrarian, or even a Pollyanna. But when everyone around me is filled with gloom and despair, seeing dire portents in every political headline, I try to find trends that encourage me. And I'm finding them. It could be that my hopes outrun the realities. But I'm guardedly optimistic that's not the case.
Have you already made up your mind about how you're going to vote — at least by party — in this year's important elections? I hope not. Because to serve our nation well at this troubled time in its political history, you should be looking for certain qualities in the politicians you favor. Ideology, party affiliation, positions on key issues — these are important considerations, but this year demands more from us as voters.
Because we live in such tumultuous political times, it's easy to believe that today's intense public focus on the Trump presidency is something new — an obsession like none we've ever seen before. Yet to one degree or another, the president has always been at the center of the public's attention.
This may seem odd, but as I look ahead to a year we know will be momentous, what I feel most strongly is gratitude.