The East Bay Leadership Council did the unthinkable at its annual East Bay USA Dinner in Concord Thursday night. It sat a conservative and a liberal alongside each other and invited them to talk out their differences.
Delivering perspective from the left was Ellen Tauscher, six-term congresswoman from Alamo, former undersecretary of state, friend and admirer of Hillary Clinton and strategic adviser on federal policy favored by Democrats. From the right came political consultant Karl Rove, former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, best known for barely ethical but stunningly effective campaign strategies -- a Republican Democrats love to hate.
Don't tell members of Congress because it'll make their heads explode, but these two polar opposites actually found some topics on which they agreed.
They agreed on extending to the president the power to fast-track trade agreements with Europe and Japan. They agreed that President Barack Obama has come up lacking as a consensus builder in Washington. They agreed that concerns about terrorist groups are far from over and demand heightened attention.
Their points of agreement apparently surprised even Tauscher. After Rove voiced disapproval of Obama's proposal for two years of free community college, she brought a laugh to the crowd when she said: "God, strike me dead, but I do agree with Karl again."
Perhaps because neither is now in the midst of the political fray, they rounded corners and nibbled around the edges on issues where they differed.
In decrying the millions of corporate dollars that remain untaxed offshore, Tauscher lobbied for "tax holidays," allowing U.S. firms to repatriate foreign profits at a one-time reduced tax rate. Rove tactfully suggested a better solution was to completely end double-taxing. If a U.S. firm's profits are taxed abroad, don't make it pay taxes on them again.
There's a warm satisfaction that comes from watching two seasoned political pros spar gently over hot-button topics, flipping jabs while respecting the other's punches. It makes you wonder why our elected representatives can't engage in such healthy give-and-take.
"I believe part of the problem," said Tauscher of legislative gridlock, "is the redistricting system. In too many parts of this country, all you have to do is win your primary to become a member of Congress. (Candidates) don't feel held at risk in the general election, so there's no coming to the middle. All they have to do is win their primary, so they think, 'I'm going to stay on the left or the right.'"
Sadly, it's not a new phenomenon, she said: "When I was in office (1997-2009), I saw people walking the halls of Congress who literally would not say 'hello' to people from the other party. If everybody stays in a rigid position, you get a lot of people pounding their chests, but you don't get things done."
Before they parted, the friendly adversaries were asked their thoughts about the role of government.
"The decision you have to make as business and community leaders," Rove told the crowd, "is whether you want to shape or be shaped."
"When I was in office," Tauscher countered, "I said my constituents want a government that is out of their way but on their side."
Two sides of the same coin, and not so far apart. Wouldn't it be nice if the folks in Washington stated their positions and worked out their differences as openly as this?
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.