In the midst of a bitterly divisive presidential election, a global pandemic, and an economic devastation, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta posed to us a simple question with no clear answer: “Why is governing no longer good politics?”
This straightforward question encapsulates why so many Americans feel politically homeless, and frustrated with their government. Why after years of campaigning and elections, and billions of dollars spent trying to convince voters of the right path forward for the country, does nothing seem to change? Moreover, why does partisanship continue to drag down our political process, and what, if anything, can be done to stop this dysfunction?
If we are to move beyond this moment of hyper-partisanship and legislative paralysis, governing must once again be good politics. To help answer these questions and provide context for how our country arrived at this moment, we turned to a unique constituency – former elected and appointed government officials.
The perspectives in this report represents nearly 1,000 years of public service, spanning every presidential administration from John F. Kennedy to Donald J. Trump, and evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Respondents include former mayors, governors, members of Congress, U.S. ambassadors, cabinet secretaries, and White House chiefs of staff.
Importantly, we asked and received answers to our guiding question – why is governing no longer good politics, and what can be done to change this dynamic – prior to Election Day 2020. The issues that have led us to this moment transcend any particular party, candidate, or electoral outcome. And because few moments offer such an opportunity for change as the start of a new presidency and a new Congress, it is our hope that sharing these reflections now will help serve as the launching point for a broader conversation on these important issues.
FixUS is a project of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget committed to engaging fellow citizens to better understand and address our nation’s growing divisions, dysfunction, and distrust in our political system. Through a number of research projects, public engagement efforts and partnerships, we seek to bring attention and visibility to these issues, build support for necessary changes, and ultimately help to regain a sense of shared aspirations, values and a belief that there is more that unites us than divides us.
Given the former officials’ candor and honesty, we wanted to share the views of respondents in their own words, with excerpts organized by thematic findings. We encourage you to read the responses in their entirety by visiting fixusnow.org/governingreport.
The responses confirmed both our worst fears about the dysfunction of our political system, and our best hopes that change is possible. What emerged was two overarching themes. First, is that the political system has built in incentives that increasingly make good governing bad politics. And second is that regardless of those incentives, it is the obligation of all of us – as individual citizens and governmental leaders – to engage and take responsibility for turning the tide.