What Washington needs now is a New Deal culture -- or, more precisely, a new culture of the deal.
All the elements are in place: a president who prides himself on the art of the deal. Congressional Democrats who have made careers out of fashioning deals. And a government-closure stalemate that has reduced Washington to paralysis, exposed American government to ridicule and called into question whether our political system works at all.
The country needs a deal to get government workers back on the job and government functions back in operation. But it also needs to acknowledge that there are two separate kinds of deals: deals of desperation, which is what this shutdown moment requires, and deals of cooperation, which is what Washington will need once this crisis has passed. And it is the deals of cooperation that have, over the decades, made America great and have redounded to the glory of its leaders.
These sorts of compromise in the early days of the Republic gave us a Senate to preserve the prerogatives of small states and a House to assure the power of large ones. As years passed, they delivered great social advances for the many and they empowered the powerless few. Overall, they made the country more equitable, more secure and more welcoming.
At a moment when discouragement and despair rule, it may be inspiring to recall some moments of cooperation that provided uplift, moments of compromise from political figures who sublimated their rivalries and their personal interests in the service of the national interest:
-- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. The two were bitter combatants in the 1940 presidential election, but once the contest was over, Willkie supported FDR's Lend-Lease program to provide armaments to Great Britain during World War II, rallied Americans to understand that isolationism could not endure in a world where the Axis nations were on the attack, and even served as Roosevelt's emissary to Britain, Russia and China.
-- Sen. Bob Dole and Sen. George McGovern. The two farm-state lawmakers, remembered best for winning their party's presidential nominations only to lose the general elections, put aside their wide political differences to craft legislation broadening the food stamp initiative, expanding the school lunch program and providing food assistance to children around the world. Their efforts began in 1977, when Dole had a 5 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and McGovern had an 80 percent rating. That didn't matter. They made common cause and promoted an important cause.
-- President Ronald Reagan and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. One a classic urban liberal from Chicago, the other a new-era conservative from California, together they worked to overhaul and simplify the federal tax code, one of the most dramatic legislative achievements of the last quarter of the 20th century. The two luxuriated in their new roles as tag-team boosters of the tax measure, with the president giving a nationally televised address and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee following with a plea to "write Rosty."
-- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Sen. Orrin Hatch. There seldom was a less likely pair of co-conspirators than the Irish Catholic liberal from Massachusetts and the Mormon conservative from Utah, one corpulent and ebullient, the other slim and taciturn. They agreed on almost nothing but combined to battle the tobacco lobby and to treat uninsured AIDS patients.
"We both had to fight our own sides to be able to do some of the things that are landmark bills today," said Hatch, who once said he had gone to the Senate in the first place to battle with Kennedy.
-- President George H.W. Bush and Sen. George Mitchell. Mitchell was born poor in Maine, while Bush owned a sprawling coastal compound in Maine. It was that connection -- their shared love for the state and their passion to preserve its beauty -- that led the Republican president and the Democratic Senate majority leader to work together on clean-air legislation that attacked the acid-rain crisis that threatened the health and ultimately, the viability of Maine's lakes.
-- Sen. Tom Harkin and Sen. Lowell Weicker. One was an Iowa Democrat from a hardscrabble background, the other was a Republican heir to the E.R. Squibb & Sons pharmaceutical fortune. But Harkin had a brother who was deaf and Weicker had a child who was disabled, and their effort, along with Democratic Rep. Tony Coelho of California (who had epilepsy) and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh (who had a son with developmental disabilities), expanded America's commitment to equal access and civil rights. Hatch and Kennedy also provided leadership for the legislation, which was passed while Dole, disabled during World War II, was Senate minority leader.
-- President Lyndon Johnson and moderate Republicans. The 36th president, reared in the South, regarded civil rights legislation as perhaps the leading legacy of the Northern president whose assassination sent him to the White House. Along with Republicans Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Rep. Bill McCulloch of Ohio, Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress.
"I know that you, more than anyone, were responsible for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s," Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis later wrote the Ohio lawmaker. "You made a personal commitment to President Kennedy in October 1963, against all the interests of your district. When he was gone, your personal integrity and character were such that you held to that commitment despite enormous pressure and political temptations not to do so."
These deals righted American wrongs, opened American opportunity and softened the hard edges of American life. They required vision and were greased by cooperation. They required selflessness, and they enhanced the quality of life for all Americans. They required courage, and they rewarded risk. And they required a culture of compromise, even amid moments of great contention.
It can happen again.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com