Former President Clinton spoke last week at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, praising its namesake despite their sometimes rocky history. Dole frustrated Clinton’s ambitious health care reform agenda, and they ran against each other for president in 1996.
Yet at times they worked together. For example, they teamed up with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a plan to stabilize the Mexican peso in 1995.
To accomplish this, they had to listen to each other.
This got me thinking about today’s no-listening politics.
A recent egregious local example of no-listening politics is the decision by Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, to remove three Republican state representatives from the House Health and Human Services Committee: Reps. Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills, Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, and Don Hill, R-Emporia.
They buck Republican leadership by favoring the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
These three troublemakers lack the votes to pass this by themselves, but possibly, just possibly, someone might listen to them. If there is listening, there might be negotiations, compromise, perhaps even – if the stars align just right – policy. That is a risk the speaker cannot take. Off the committee they go.
Welcome to the age of no-listening politics.
Over at Cedar Crest, Gov. Sam Brownback has long been practicing no-listening politics regarding the state’s budgetary free fall. A steady stream of monthly reports calls for action. Otherwise, Kansas risks downgraded bond ratings, year-end shortfalls or even insolvency.
Not to worry – the governor has a plan: just ignore it. Recently, when asked if he planned to close the gap with spending cuts or tax increases, the governor told reporters that his plan was to just do nothing.
No listening means no problem, therefore no need for a solution. If only bond-rating agencies saw it the same way.
No-listening politics is also riding high on the national stage. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump vocally shouts down repeated corrections of his incendiary and utterly false attacks on Muslims. Instead of standing up to this hateful political climate, Brownback and his fellow Republican governors caved, telling refugees of the horrific Syrian civil war that they are no longer welcome here, in case one of them might be a terrorist.
Evangelical, Catholic and Jewish leaders have pleaded with Brownback and other Republican governors to change course, but to do this the governors would first have to listen. Probably better not to get one’s hopes up – and to send the refugees to states with Democratic governors.
Clinton’s and Dole’s relationship was often rough. There were repeated budget stalemates, though they did seem to get resolved more quickly than today. Still, many compromises were off the table. Yet there seemed to be some sense that certain issues transcended these divisions – that there was an overriding national interest, at least from time to time.
If only today’s leaders could heed that lesson. Unfortunately, the only way for them to learn this is to start listening. So far, the signs in Topeka and elsewhere are not good.
Michael A. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.