Naive or not? We’ll know soon

“We have a government that doesn’t work any longer,” said Ira Shapiro, who herewith makes his second appearance in this space, following his first appearance at the Clinton School of Public Service. It was a few days ago, Shapiro being one of the first speakers in the School’s annual, sterling lineup of visiting lecturers, when we hooked up for the first time in person. I had interviewed Shapiro by phone some months back and reported the highlights of our conversation in connection with his just-published book, [begin ital] The Last Great Senate [end ital]. Somehow I got a bid backstage to chat with the author and found him as personally engaging as his book was engrossing.

Joining us was former U.S. Senator Kaneaster Hodges of Newport, appointed in 1977 by then-Gov. David Pryor to succeed John L. McClellan, who had died with a year or so remaining in his sixth term. Joining us was Hoyt Purvis, now of the political science and journalism faculties at the University of Arkansas, who was a Senate aide in its “last great” years. Hodges had brought along a photo from his Senate days, a memorable shot of the newbie mugging with Majority Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia, memorably autographed by the latter. Purvis would serve on Byrd’s staff for six years, having served even longer as an assistant to Byrd’s close friend J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, and is credited in the text by Shapiro with having helped shape the book.

Yeah, those were the days, the years, as Shapiro would tell his audience a few minutes later. It was an era when the Senate “was almost a demilitarized zone,” when the prevailing ethos was not party, nor even state, but the national interest. A senator’s desire to deliver for his or her state, or to pursue initiatives apart from the priorities of the leadership or the White House, was recognized, always. But “individual agendas mattered less” in those days, Shapiro observed, commonly sacrificed to the search for common ground, to advancing legislation rather than blocking it at the behest of the chamber’s party generals. He was there, Shapiro, in the era when senators crossed the aisle to joke with one another and then crossed it again to vote with one another. He was a counselor to titans including Javits, Nelson, Eagleton, Ribicoff and Rockefeller. It had its pronounced partisans, Shapiro’s Senate, but still it was a citadel of democracy and not today’s castle of dysfunction; cooperation and compromise were not then expletives. One need only look at the abundance of straight party-line votes, Shapiro said, to recognize the “demonstrable non-exercise of independent judgment” among senators.

So President Obama, Shapiro continued, was “naïve” in believing the narrative that the country — through the Congress — would come together in a time of crisis. “He had the right to expect cooperation but all the Republicans did was obstruct and oppose,” Shapiro added. And, yes, he is a “lifelong, committed Democrat.” But with that acknowledgement (or admission, or concession, or proclamation) “senators have to go back to being senators” instead of blind partisans hogtied by campaign contributions (or the threat of losing them). That won’t happen, Shapiro cautioned, without (a) a curtailing of the “permanent campaign” dynamic, by which senators of both parties never stop running, never stop raising money, and (b) a reversal of the GOP’s “endless” lurch to the right. The former will be all but impossible absent a reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which took the lid off political spending, and the latter — who knows when the Republican rush to starboard will end?

“Some people think I’m naïve,” Shapiro granted. Yet he is convinced that the nation’s problems will only fester, then break open as some many hideous pustules, without a “rebuilt Senate,” without members resolved to reverse “20 years of Senate downward spiral.”

I hung around while Shapiro, his speech concluded, signed copies of his book (all available were snapped up) because I had a question: Since voters will choose a third of the Senate in two months, perhaps granting neither party a filibuster-proof majority, and since the body’s rules permit a single senator to block action regardless of majority-minority makeup, is there any hope of a Senate that will work with the next president, be he an Obama or a Romney, rather than stall?

Shapiro considered the prospect for a moment. He answered: “The problems are so serious there will be a number of members on both sides who will want to avoid the fiscal cliff with whoever is elected.” Naïve? We’ll know soon enough.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.