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Common Ground: An Interview with Cal Thomas

By John W. Whitehead
September 23, 2007

With the elections of 2008 a little over a year away, presidential campaigns are already swinging into full gear. The media is abuzz with negative campaigning and discussions of “red” states versus “blue” states. With this emphasis on partisanship and polarization, however, issues of real substance are often obscured while meaningful debate, constructive compromise and thoughtful decision-making are all made impossible. When polarization paralyzes a government and focuses campaigns on division and negativity, what are the costs to the American people? Where did this partisan war begin, and how can it come to an end? 

In their book Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America, Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel analyze the causes and effects of the existing partisan war in Washington. They decry what they see as the polarizers of today— the media, lobbyists, corporations and more—for fostering this division in their organizations’ own interests. They also hope to expose self-interested originators of political rancor, claiming they “know the gig, and the gig is up.”

Thomas, a conservative, and Beckel, a liberal, admit that they were once such polarizers themselves, but have come together to find common ground on some of the most divisive political issues. They point to their own example and urge legislators to seek compromise, as they see consensus as the only way toward progress. They then lay out a campaign strategy based on common ground, which they claim could win the White House and restore civility to American politics.

For the upcoming 2008 campaign, Thomas and Beckel present a six-point “Common Ground Campaign Strategy,” which they claim will win the White House on terms we can all agree on. First, they suggest that candidates campaign against polarization, as the populace has shown that it is weary of partisan squabbling. Second, they claim that the two major political parties are “dinosaurs,” seen by the majority of centrist voters as corrupt money-machines. Third, they recommend using the minimum amount of negativity that is “reasonable and politically practical.” Fourth, they ask the candidates to give credit where it is due—and get credit from voters for doing so. Fifth, they suggest recreating the spirit of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, with more substance and less show business. And finally, they recommend promising to appoint someone from the opposition party to the candidate’s cabinet as a concrete way of showing commitment to open-mindedness, which is essential with such slight margins between the minority and majority in Congress. 

Cal Thomas is America’s most widely syndicated op-ed columnist, authoring a syndicated column twice a week that reaches over 500 newspapers across the country.  He is the author of 10 books, provides commentary for programs airing on over 300 radio stations and makes regular appearances on “Fox News Watch.” During the years 1980-1985, Thomas served as vice president of Moral Majority, one of the largest conservative lobbyist groups in the United States that was incredibly influential during the Reagan Administration. Thomas co-authors a weekly column in USA Today with Beckel, “Common Ground,” which has served as the inspiration for the book. Cal Thomas recently took time out of his busy book-touring schedule to answer a few questions for oldSpeak.  

John Whitehead: In the book Common Ground, you and Bob Beckel admit that you were once in the middle of the polarizing crowd you criticize today. What caused you to realize this and then turn ship?

CT: I was with the Moral Majority for five years and used to sit in on what they called marketing meetings. Professional fundraisers were brought in to advise us on how to raise money through the mail. The fundraisers would send out prospecting packages. The use of the term was appropriate, like prospecting for gold. These professional fundraisers focused on issues they knew would trigger a checkbook response, such as gun control, abortion, gay rights or some kind of ACLU offense to Christians. Then Moral Majority would send out fundraising letters with underlined passages in the letters about how these people and groups were going to “take over the country if the people didn’t send Moral Majority $25, $50, $100 or whatever they could afford.” The other side was doing the same thing, sending out fundraising letters saying that “Senator Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell and others want to police your bedrooms and do away with your civil and human rights so send us $25, $50, $100 or whatever you can afford and we’ll stop them.” The dirty little secret was that neither side had the power to do what it claimed to the other side. But the checks cleared, the fundraisers were happy and it gave the illusion of power, which is different from real power. Unfortunately, Bob Beckel and I contributed to that. It was very cynical, and we just had an epiphany about it. We both love this country and felt that there were certain things more important than political victory for one side or the other—that is, to see if we could, without compromising our principles, reach an accommodation on important issues that would move the ball forward and accomplish what the Preamble to the Constitution says, “promote the general welfare.” The problem with so much in politics today is that everybody is out to promote their own welfare, which is why most people hate politics. 

JW: Are you saying that generally these people are selfish?

CT: A former reporter for a number of publications once said, “In the old days, people used to come to Washington not to do well but to do good.” Now it seems that the end is perpetuating one’s self in power and just doing well without doing good for the country. I’m not saying that this applies to all politicians, but increasingly to more of them. And if a politician tries to reach out to the other side, if he tries to reach a consensus or bi-partisanship with a member of the other party, as we saw with Senator Joe Lieberman, he is likely to get crucified.

JW: But Lieberman kissed Bush. Is that going too far?

CT: Well, maybe politicians shouldn’t kiss each other unless they’re Barney Frank or Larry Craig. But Bush and Lieberman became friends more or less across the aisle. Their spouses knew each other and the families built personal relationships. That sort of personal relationship in Congress, for example, is absent today. Political people even go to their own restaurants. There are Democratic restaurants, and there are Republican restaurants.

JW: Isn’t this political segregation?

CT: Yes, it is political segregation. Nobody knows anyone except by labels. Everyone is afraid to be seen socializing with a member of the other side for fear of what a political fundraiser might do in a letter or a TV commercial. It is outrageous.

JWW: In the book, you point out that the “reigning theory of U.S. politics” is that America is divided among red states and blue states. We see this map during election season. Likewise, as you pointed out, it is a common perception that “values issues,” such as “God, abortion, guns, same-sex marriage, bad movies and worse TV,” drive the political philosophy of all potential voters. Does the political polarization we see in Washington accurately represent the political division among the American people? Put another way, are we stuck in a culture war? Do you think this accurately reflects how Americans think across the country or are Americans manipulated into thinking that way?

CT: No. As we say in the book, this whole red state/blue state thing is a myth. It was started by the networks in order to convey a visual picture of how a state’s electoral vote was going for a presidential candidate. But then the political establishment took that and started using it to define a whole state. There are red and blue neighborhoods. I have next-door neighbors who are lesbians. I have next-door neighbors who are liberals. And I don’t know the politics of some of the others. You can’t define a whole state or an entire community or even your own neighborhood. You have children going to school who are from Democratic, Republican, liberal, conservative and moderate parents. To broad-brush the country like this is inaccurate in the extreme. Look at Virginia, for example. For years, it has been a conservative state, but now it has a Democratic governor. Virginia also has a Democratic senator. And if the polls are right, there is probably going to be a second Democratic senator. So how does that fit in from one color to the other? And who decides?

JW: Is the media the main perpetrator of this myth?

CT: It is a major engine behind this myth because it serves its own purposes of division, conflict and anger. I’ve been called by show bookers and asked my opinion on a particular subject. But after giving my opinion, they pass over me. I ask why, and they say that they want somebody a little edgier. So instead of having someone on a program who could reach common ground and actually benefit people, such as Bob Beckel and myself, they want someone who says, “You’re ruining America” and the other person responds, “No, you’re ruining America,” “Well, you’re a Communist,” “Well, you’re a Fascist.” And the hosts say, “We will be back with more rational discussions after these messages.”

JW: How have lobbyists contributed to the problem? Should there be more restrictions on lobbyists so the ordinary American is represented as equally as a special interest group that is funneling millions of dollars to campaign coffers?

CT: It is all about money. And it is all about power, which is not real power at all. Bob and I talked to one member of Congress who told us that not too long ago, lobbyists were prohibited from being in the hallway outside of what they called markups when the final words of legislation—before they go to the floor for final approval in the House or Senate—are done. But he said that now they stand in the hall with their cell phones. And if a member votes in a way that the lobbyist doesn’t like, the lobbyist immediately calls his or her office and thousands of phone calls and faxes are funneled into that member’s office from his or her home state or district within a few minutes. This is enormous pressure. Like a wide receiver in a football game who sometimes looks over his shoulder for a quarterback about ready to knock him over just after he catches the pass, you have lobbyists in the hallway and congressmen looking over their shoulder wondering if they are going to be beaten in the next election.

JW: Are the lobbyists more powerful than our representatives?

CT: In many cases, depending on the issue and depending on the vulnerability of the particular member of Congress, they are. People like Ted Kennedy, and others who can get elected as long as they are living and breathing, don’t have anything to worry about. But most seats aren’t as safe as that. And it’s amazing what can be done with a 30-second TV ad. I could turn your mother or mine into a Mother Teresa or a monster if I had the right sound bites and the right ad agency. This is what they fear, and this is one of the reasons very little gets done. Social Security, Medicare, all the major issues that need to be reformed—that both sides know need to be reformed—they use it as a club against the other side if anybody really tries to reform it. Thus, it is not really about reform. It is about maintaining themselves in power, and the only way they think they can do that is to demonize the other side. Some Republicans and Democrats hate each other more than they ought to be hating the Taliban.

JW: Shouldn’t lobbying be illegal? Doesn’t it undermine the entire American system?

CT: I think it does. Lobbyists are not elected. But I think they should have a voice, certainly as part of the freedom of petitioning the government for redress of grievances.

JW: But not for buying favors?

CT: That’s exactly right. And that is why we have several lobbyists and former members of Congress in prison right now. Every time Congress does one of these ethics reform things, it is like the house of prostitution being given the commission for reforming lessons about virtue and virginity. You’re giving it to the wrong people. Congress can’t reform itself.

JW: When the Larry Craig debacle was referred to the Senate Ethics Committee, some commentators said, “Isn’t that an oxymoron? 

CT: Yes. That’s a perfect example of the arrogance that has descended upon and gripped Congress. When Craig was confronted by the undercover police officer, he pulled out his Senate ID and said, “I’m a United States Senator. How about that?” Now, imagine that you’re caught in a restroom sting in an airport and you’re trying to impress an undercover officer that you’re a United States Senator. The undercover officer in this instance had a good response. He basically said, “You should be embarrassed about this, Senator. We elect you to be a leader.” Finally, Craig put his wallet away. People understand what happened here. They may not understand earmarks and markups and all these other things. But they do see the arrogance, and that is the kind of thing that we need to fight in public and in politics in Washington. But it is not really being addressed.
JW: In the book, you point to a couple of Christian organizations as being part of the polarization of politics. You also chronicle how the rise of the Moral Majority in 1980 represented an unholy alliance between religion and politics. Has a certain segment of Christianity contributed to the destructive and polarizing force we now face?

CT: Once, before I understood how this system worked, I asked a fundraiser, “Why don’t you ever send out a positive letter on what you’re doing with people’s money?” He looked at me and said, “You can’t raise money on a positive. You have to have a conflict. You have to have an enemy. You have to have a division.”

JW: Christians are so engaged in politics. Is that one of the problems that causes this kind of thing?

CT: Yes. Christians should be loving their enemies and praying for those who persecute them and visiting the prisoners and caring for the widows and orphans. This is what Jesus told us to do, not fix what is wrong with the politics of the country. Jesus never talked about that. It wasn’t that he was indifferent to it. What he wanted to do was impart a greater power, a more effective power, which, if applied in the way that he represented and instructed, would have a bubble-up effect in culture. It would transform some of the things at the top that our efforts to transform through politics are doomed to futility. 

JW: Some Christian groups have mentioned to me that Cal Thomas is calling for compromise.

CT: That depends on what you mean by compromise. 

JW: For example, if you’re trying to get politicians together in one big room, you’re compromising on these issues. The argument is that you can’t compromise on something like same-sex marriage. How do you respond to that?

CT: We have six big issues in the book that we argue through. One of them is abortion, and one of them is same-sex marriage. Let’s take abortion first. The Left always says “We want to keep abortion safe, legal and rare.” If the objective of both the Left and the Right is supposedly to reduce the number of abortions, I don’t know anybody who really honestly thinks they’re going to eliminate all abortions. They weren’t eliminated when they were illegal. Thus, a realistic objective is to reduce them to the smallest number possible. Bob and I agree that the best approach is more information for women. Let’s give women the ultimate amount of information so their choices will be informed.

JW: That is what America is all about—the information necessary to make an informed choice.

CT: Yes. And the technology of the sonograms, with incredible resolutions, is now able to provide plenty of evidence that what we have in the womb is a human being. In the various surveys I’ve seen, over 90 percent of abortion-minded women who see a picture of their baby choose not to abort it. Now, if you can get over 90 percent of anything, you ought to go for it. But the purists on both sides—the dividers—argue that they want 100 percent. One reason is that if there is any accommodation, people may stop sending them money. As far as same-sex marriage goes, a lot of the Christian groups that are calling for the sanctity of marriage ought to start building up their own marriages first. We have a divorce rate in the church that is exactly the same as the world. Why should anybody listen to me if I’ve been divorced or am living with somebody and I’m telling them they shouldn’t be living the way they are. The state is not the church. If the state wants to allow same-sex couples to have a contract and live together and own a house together, that is the state’s business. It is not the church’s business. A lot of Christians who are telling other people how to live are doing a pretty crummy job of living the way they tell other people to live. Get your own house in order first, and then maybe you will have more credibility. I haven’t compromised anything. That is one of the points Bob and I make in our book. He starts out by saying why he is a Liberal, and I start out by why I am a Conservative. So we keep our political bonafides, but we say there are greater issues. There are people who want to kill Americans. There are people who want to destroy America. And if we are fighting each other instead of our enemies, we’re going to lose. 

JW: As you point out in the book, a significant part of today’s polarization is a result of two parties fighting to capture and/or maintain power. Would there be less polarization if there were more than two major parties?

CT: We’ve tried that before. From the time of the Whigs to Teddy Roosevelt to Ross Perot, George Wallace’s American Party, John Anderson in 1980 and Pat Buchanan. It has never worked. This is basically a two-party nation. Many of the members of Congress we’ve talked to are sick of the system. They just don’t know how to get out of it. They feel trapped. When they’re in Washington, they spend most of their time fundraising. They don’t know each other. They don’t know each other’s spouses. They don’t know each other’s kids. They know very little about each other. They are all about staying in power. And somebody who actually tries to do the best they can, given the political environment, is immediately demonized by the other side.

JW: What about term limits? Would limiting members of Congress to two terms in office help alleviate the problem by always bringing fresh people in who are in tune with the needs of ordinary Americans, rather than vying for more and more political power?

CT: The Founders never intended holding political office to be a permanent career. They expected it to be public service. People would leave real jobs as business people, farmers, lawyers, homemakers, academics or whatever and come to Washington, do limited public service, serve their country—like being non-career military—and then go home to real jobs. When George McGovern lost his Senate seat in 1980, he didn’t know what else to do because he had been in politics all his life. So he decided to go to Connecticut and buy an inn and run it. And then after a couple of years, it went bankrupt. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said, “If I had known how difficult it was to run a business, I might have voted differently in the Senate.” That tells you all you need to know. These people don’t live real lives. They can raise their own pay. They get free medical care. If they’re in for a couple of terms, they get free pensions. They get all kinds of perks that no ordinary American gets. Those in leadership get private cars and security and planes at Andrews Air Force Base to take them around the world and special parking at National Airport. Nobody else lives like that. And they get out of touch real fast. 

JW: Are there any 2008 candidates using the common ground approach? Some would say that Barack Obama is.

CT: He talks about it, and we credit him for that. I think that is a wonderful thing. But I want to know the details. It is one thing to talk about it as a politician. It is another thing to actually get down and dirty and do something. Thus, if he is for common ground, where would he compromise on taxes and big government and the social issues like abortion and other things? The problem is that if he is seen moving toward the center or the right, he will immediately be blasted by the people on the left. The same goes for Hillary Clinton. She talks about common ground. Certainly it’s in her health plan. But if she starts moving toward the center or the right, she will get blasted by people on her side. And the same goes for conservatives.   

JW: What is the hope for the future? Some people are going to say that the approach you take in the book is pie-in-the-sky. Is there a realistic hope?

CT: The poet Browning said, “Let your reach exceed your grasp or what is Heaven for?”  Somebody has to start somewhere. As I said, the members of Congress we have talked to feel trapped. They don’t see a way out. They don’t want to see their opponent or the person of the opposite party as their enemy. And yet the polarizers, the fundraisers and the cable TV news, which only want the shouters and the screamers, continue to perpetuate this idea. It is not pie-in-the-sky because it used to be this way. Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan would have disagreements, but O’Neill would come over to the White House at night and they would sit down and have a drink and work things out. That was probably the last visible common ground that we have seen. It doesn’t happen anymore because everybody is a prisoner of their respective side. But it is going to take more than just two people. It will have to begin with two people, and the polarizers have to be shamed. This is the United States of America, but we have become a divided states of America. We have become Balkanized. We have become polarized. If we don’t solve this problem, or at least begin to address it, we are going to become extinct. The real enemy isn’t within our borders; it is outside them. And if we are fighting ourselves, we are not going to have much strength left over to fight the real enemy.