Pete Domenici + Alice Rivlin
Political Bridge People
Pete Domenici is senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and retired as Republican Senator of New Mexico in 2008.
Alice Rivlin is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She was vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board, founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, and served in the numerous Democratic administrations.
October 26, 2012
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: It’s rare these days to hear straight talk about politics or the economy — voices of conscience over agenda. But we will, here, for the next hour. We get candor and wisdom from two Washington insiders who won’t give partisan gridlock the last word: longtime Republican lawmaker Pete Domenici and veteran Democratic economist Alice Rivlin.
ALICE RIVLIN: Both sides are trying to scare people into thinking if you vote for this other guy, it’s going to be a terrible time. And Medicare is a good example. Both sides are trying to scare seniors that their Medicare will be destroyed. That’s not even remotely possible.
PETE DOMENICI: What’s happened is we’ve let it go and fester, and the problem gets so complicated that we are the victims of its complexity in terms of trying to carry it out. There are all kinds of members that want to do something but they don’t know where to go. They don’t know …
MS. TIPPETT: And I think citizens feel the same way.
MR. DOMENICI: And I think citizens feel the same way. They say we’ve learned about it, what can I do to save this country?
MS. TIPPETT: “Political Bridge People” — a dialogue of the Civil Conversations Project. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — from APM, American Public Media. I interviewed Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin before a live audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
MS. TIPPETT: Four years after the economic downturn, the economy remains a tumultuous territory that permeates the news and the way many of us think and worry on a very personal level about core human concerns from housing to aging to the education and future working lives of our children. Yet the budget debates that make the news are most often stalemates or outright political warfare — clashes followed by fragile compromise between seemingly irreconcilable values and concerns.
The matter of deficit reduction is discussed in terms of numbers, of cuts in revenues, with little searching acknowledgement of the human and moral consequences that lie behind those numbers. And this breeds fatigue, confusion and — most destructively, perhaps, in a Democracy — a disconnect and cynicism among the very citizens who must hold their elected officials accountable and, indeed, be part of the reversal of the culture of debt if that is to happen.
Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici are political bridge people. This is why I wanted to speak with them today. It’s been said of Alice Rivlin that her dedication to serious, unglamorous budget issues is unrivaled. That’s a compliment.
MS. RIVLIN: Thanks.
MS. TIPPETT: And a Chicago newspaper once wrote of Pete Domenici: “When you cut Pete Domenici, he bleeds black ink.” And they have both been seen as forces of conscience on the roller coaster of the American budget process of the last several decades.
So the idea behind this event is that it would be helpful, even and especially for people who are not familiar with the ins and outs of budgets, just to hear Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici speak together, to hear what their bipartisan work together has taught them, and to draw out the wisdom that they have for this moment in American life.
So I’d like to begin with Alice Rivlin. Alice, your father was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. Your mother was active with the League of Women Voters, among other things. I wonder if you could think about in your earliest life where you would trace the roots of the conscience and the moral imagination that has framed your life and public service.
MS. RIVLIN: I think part of it comes from having been a teenager in World War II and in the college generation of the post-War years, which was very idealistic. We wanted to make sure that there wasn’t another war. We were interested in things like world government, world federalism. I wasn’t actually terribly active in that, but it pervaded a piece of my generation that really wanted to ensure world peace and prosperity and thought we could.
MS. TIPPETT: I was really interested to read — this is beside the point, but it’s so fascinating to me that when you applied to the School of Public Administration at Harvard when you were 22, they told you they didn’t on principle not admit women, but they didn’t admit women of marriageable age.
MS. RIVLIN: Times have changed.
MS. TIPPETT: Times have changed. That had to also be the beginnings of some tenacity, though. And Senator Domenici, your father ran a grocery store. Your mother was originally an undocumented Italian immigrant. And your sister Thelma once told an Albuquerque newspaper that “growing up surrounded by four sisters had prepared you well for prospering in a two-party system.”
MS. TIPPETT: So I wonder, aside from that character-building experience, where do you trace the roots in your earliest life of the conscience and moral imagination behind your public service?
MR. DOMENICI: Well, you got it right. My mother and father were immigrants. I learned very early and believed very young that America was a wonderful, wonderful place. And that’s why I worked so hard when I saw things going wrong, and that’s why I’m so committed now and work with Alice on trying to get a balanced budget. Because I literally — others may not have, but I ended up not too long ago literally believing that we were on the brink of destroying America.
Now, when you believe that, you’ll work like here to try to fix it and essentially I don’t know how these people that are listening to me feel our future is, but I feel if we don’t fix the budget our future is very gloomy and we are apt to have a very, very different America than we have. Now, if that isn’t enough to make you do something, then obviously you ought to move to another country. You ought to get out of here, you know, I don’t like this place, because if you like it that much, you’ve got to try to fix it. That’s what I’ve tried to do.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, when I called you initially to talk about coming here today you said — I had spoken with Alice first and you said, “Anything Alice Rivlin tells me to do, I’ll do.”
MS. TIPPETT: But I can imagine that there have been times in the last 30 years since you’ve worked together that you might be shocked that you would’ve made that statement one day. You’ve been on other sides of …
MR. DOMENICI: Well, that’s true. But if you don’t know that person well enough to make that statement and believe it and say it will never hurt me — I think I know her so I don’t have any problem making that statement. She would not ask me to do something that was against my conscience and my ideology. If she knew it, she would not make me do that.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, did you have a kind of working relationship and political relationship that this seemed like an obvious thing for you to start working together on the debt reduction taskforce? Or how did that happen?
MS. RIVLIN: Yes. And you have to remember that when Pete and I first met, I was the director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. He was a freshman senator on the budget committee and I appeared frequently, testifying before the budget committee. And I quickly figured out, this man’s really smart and he really cares about doing it right. So we had a mutual respect that goes back a long way.
Now, we always knew that he was a Republican, I was a Democrat. And later, much later, actually, when I became the budget director in the first Clinton administration and Pete was the chairman of the budget committee in the Republican-dominated Senate, we were on opposite sides. Clearly. And we disagreed on substantive matters, but we never lost our respect for each other. And I think that’s the key to this.
People can disagree on all sorts of things, but if they listen to each other and have respect for each other, they can work things out. And we’ve kind of lost that idea that you have to work things out and compromise and come to a conclusion. Because gridlock, which we have now in the budget, is the worst possible thing, especially with respect to a problem like the budget deficit, which gets worse if you do nothing. Gridlock is fatal for this problem.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. RIVLIN: Because the course we’re on now is hurtling toward disaster over time, and we have to do something. Nothing is not the answer.
MS. TIPPETT: So we don’t want to, nor do we have the time to do ins and outs of the budget plan, so I want to just say let’s lay out — establish — that there’s a fundamental truth to your budget proposals. I love this phrase “the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” I’ve heard it attributed to different people. I think I choose Oliver Wendell Holmes. But today when we talk about the budget, we’re dealing with that, the simplicity on the other side of the complexity — that debt can and must be stabilized, that both political parties have brought about the situation we’re in now.
And when you wrote this together, this open letter to the American people, when you released the report on restoring America’s future in 2010, you said, “We created this plan to show that it can be done.”
MR. DOMENICI: Right.
MS. RIVLIN: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: I guess the question that arises — and it’s good to ask in a place like this — is given the political culture right now, could sitting politicians reach that kind of agreement? I mean, what have you learned that tells you that they could?
MS. RIVLIN: Well, let me start on that. I also served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and it was mostly sitting politicians. And contrary to the public view of it, we actually had very civil conversations behind closed doors. They had to be behind closed doors because there was an election going on, the congressional election of 2010.
But we came back every Wednesday to the Dirksen building and talked about the various aspects of the budget that needed to be solved and came together — now, not everybody voted for it but a majority of the group did — around a bipartisan solution. And at the end of the process, I thought Senator Tom Coburn said it best, a very conservative Republican senator from Oklahoma. He said: “There’s a lot in this plan that I don’t like but I’ve figured something out. If we’re going to solve this problem, Tom Coburn isn’t going to get everything he wants.” And that really summarized, to me, the idea of compromise. You’ve got to give up something in order to solve the problem.
And I’m sure that Senator dink Durbin, who’s a liberal Democrat from Illinois, had the same thought, although he didn’t express it exactly the same way. There was a lot in that he didn’t like but he just, he signed it too.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Political Bridge People.” We’re at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. I’m with Pete Domenici, former six-term Republican Senator of New Mexico and veteran Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee; and economist Alice Rivlin. She was director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, and was the first director of the Congressional Budget Office.
MS. TIPPETT: So where’s the breakdown? What goes wrong between that possibility and then the reality that we see as it plays itself out?
MR. DOMENICI: I think that what must happen to address an issue of this magnitude and this importance is that people in authority have to know the problem.
MS. TIPPETT: Then the problem.
MR. DOMENICI: They have to understand the problem. If they know and understand the problem, then they know and understand that this is really something important. It is the country’s future. So if you know that, you are apt to sit down and address the issue as a person and say I’m willing to sit with Alice, I’m willing to talk with Joel, and I’m willing to give because I know the problem.
Now, what’s happening to our country is more and more and more people know the problem. That’s good. I’m not saying we’d have to have the whole population know the problem to get there. That’s an exorbitant request of democracy. You’re asking too much of it, of democracy, for that. But what’s happened is we’ve let it go and fester, and the problem gets so complicated that we are the victims of its complexity in terms of trying to carry it out.
There are all kinds of members that want to do something but they don’t know where to go.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think citizens feel the same way.
MR. DOMENICI: And I think citizens feel the same way. They say, “We’ve learned about it; what can I do to save this country? I want to be on Pete and Alice’s side. I want to do something.”
MS. TIPPETT: So, I mean, what would your answer to someone be? I mean, just how would you help someone think about where to start?
MR. DOMENICI: Well, at this point, it’s pretty obvious to me that we’ve got a little bit of time but it’s also pretty obvious to me that we don’t know how much time we have. And for those who think we have 20 years, they are truly willing to risk the future of a great country. For those who say it’s got to be done next month, let’s trot them off somewhere. They’re kind of crazy too. Because the truth of the matter is it’s too big and too complicated to get it done that way.
But as a citizen, find out what is the real truth about this. And in my opinion, you should try to narrow it down to as few things as you can.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You’re — and this being the economic …
MR. DOMENICI: Plan. Any plan, any effort should be simple, put into as simple of terms as you. That’s our problem and our job. Make it simple so that people can get it, can understand it. Once we have it and it’s simple, then we’ve got to work on the next step and that’s how do we get it implemented. And of course that’s as complicated an issue as we’ve ever had.
MS. TIPPETT: Alice?
MS. RIVLIN: I think the essential thing for people to grasp is that we’re on an unsustainable track. The debt is rising faster than our economy can grow. And almost anybody can figure out that’s a bad thing. And then the second thing is that the things that you would have to do to make that not true are all unpleasant. You have only two choices: You have to raise revenues — not necessarily tax rates but the amount of money collected — and you have to reduce the rate of growth of the big spending programs, which are ones that everybody likes. They are Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Those are the things that are driving the spending increase in the future. They aren’t the only things we might adjust, but they are the basic cause of the problem going forward. So that bipartisan groups like ours and like Simpson-Bowles and actually like any other group that you pull together, have come to the conclusion you have to do two painful things over time: raise revenues and slow the growth of the entitlement programs. That’s easy to demagogue.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Right.
MS. RIVLIN: It’s easy to get out there if you’re running for public office and say no cuts to Medicare, or I will cut your taxes, not raise them. And that’s irresponsible talk for anybody who wants to solve the problem.
MS. TIPPETT: I think you make the point again and again that because of the difficulty and unpopularity of what has to happen, bipartisan alliance is the only — because every side will lose by making these unpopular decisions and so essentially — what did you say once? You know, they have to join hands and jump together.
MR. DOMENICI: Well, let me add one thing in there that I think is true. I don’t think what the public has to undertake to help us get this done is as tough as it’s being made. We’re using words that scare people. “Cuts to Medicare” — language by Democrats that says the Republicans are going to do away with Medicare as we know it. And they say that very cocky and what they believe and say that’s it, it’s over with.
Well, the truth of the matter is we don’t have to change Medicare an awful lot. It’s just a little bit but it’s a little bit over a long sustained period of time. You’re not going to cancel the programs. In fact, within five, six, 10 years no one will know the difference, the programs will have been impacted that small amount.
Raising of revenue. We’re talking about, you know, we have hundreds of tax expenditures. That is, we give people things out of the tax code, hundreds of them worth billions of dollars. We have to pick and choose which ones we want to either take out or narrow down in application. People aren’t even going to know that the first five years. That can be implemented over a 10-year period. It’s just that we’ve got to sit down with pieces of paper and convince the people not to be frightened and not to let this talk by those who don’t want to do anything, don’t let them take hold.
MS. TIPPETT: You know what? I think also that that language of numbers and revenues in itself, these feel like abstractions to people who don’t write. So that language also, that way of talking about it, also creates anxiety, if not fear.
MR. DOMENICI: Sure.
MS. RIVLIN: That’s right. But let me reinforce Pete’s point. Because right now in this political campaign, both sides are trying to scare people into thinking if you vote for this other guy, it’s going to be a terrible time. And Medicare is a good example. Both sides are trying to scare seniors that their Medicare will be destroyed. That’s not even remotely possible. Politicians care about older people because they vote and Medicare is an extremely popular program. We need to adjust it at the margin, but nobody’s going to destroy it.
MS. TIPPETT: So one thing that …
MR. DOMENICI: Let me say …
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, sure.
MR. DOMENICI: … because they vote. That language is not bad language. The truth of the matter is this is a democracy, and the largest affected group by budget work are the senior citizens now and soon to be. By far, they are the biggest.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. DOMENICI: The truth of the matter is we have to explain it better to seniors so they know this is fixing a program that’s part of a budget so you’ll have Medicare forever. If you’d like to try America bankrupt and try to run Medicare, then go the other way. You’ll have a bankrupt country trying to run a Medicare program. Would you like that? I don’t think anyone would like that.
MS. TIPPETT: In terms of diagnosing what’s happening in the political culture that creates these dynamics, one idea that keeps coming up in this Civil Conversations I’ve been having is that there’s been a shift from opposing someone’s position to opposing — casting aspersions on their motives. And that might not sound huge, but it’s precisely this: It’s going from “I hold this position on Medicare, they hold that one,” to “they want to destroy Medicare.” Right?
And I wonder if when I heard the two of you talking earlier on about the importance of personal respect, how even when the two of you for all these years were on different sides of the issues, you had that respect for each other. Which is nice language but, you know, I’m not sure how compelling it is or how you can see that as politically powerful. But if you see that what happens if you don’t have that respect — I mean, what’s behind that is that you might question each other’s positions, but you would never question the character or the motivation of the person on the other side.
MS. RIVLIN: One example of what’s happened in Washington, and Pete knows this better than I do, back a few years ago, members of Congress lived here, socialized with each other.
MR. DOMENICI: You bet.
MS. RIVLIN: Their kids played on the same soccer team. Their wives knew each other, or their husbands. And it’s a lot harder to go out and say, “This person is a bad person” as opposed to “I disagree with their position” if you actually know each other and socialize together. And that has diminished greatly in the Congress.
MR. DOMENICI: You’re absolutely right. Let me cite for everybody here an example in my own life. I had an opportunity to meet once a week with five U.S. senators — three from the Democratic Party, two from the Republican Party — and two non-members. We would meet once a week for lunch. Our purpose was religious. We were talking about something that was personal to us about the Bible. And we would meet, eat, and did we ever get to know each other in terms of friendship. We became fast friends through this.
So much so, that everything that I did in the Senate, I looked for a bipartisan helper and I would always look for a bipartisan helper that was a friend. And if we could get together, and it was instant contact, we could make beautiful music. I tell you, it was important that we know each other and whatever can be done to tell the institutions of this country make your institutions more habitable for the elected officials and their families so they get to be a little bit intimate. So you’re talking about Senator Nunn to your wife and you talk about Sam and she knows who Sam is. You wouldn’t dare go to the floor of the Senate and say anything about him other than I don’t agree with him. And he could be right but I’m just not on the same side and I’m going to try to convince you he’s wrong. But he’s a terrific guy.
MS. TIPPETT: Watch, listen, and download this conversation with Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici at onbeing.org/ccp. This is the fourth and final in this season of our Civil Conversations Project. We’ve been subverting deep divides in American life, which only become more polarizing in an election season. A great group of policy centers are joining us: the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, along with the Brookings Institution. Learn more, and add your voice, your questions, and your ideas. Again, that’s onbeing.org/ccp. On Twitter, find hashtag CCP2012. And I’m on Twitter: @KristaTippett.
This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a rare public dialogue of candor and wisdom for this economic and political moment. I’m at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., with two esteemed “Political Bridge People” — veteran Democratic economist Alice Rivlin and longtime Republican Senator Pete Domenici. They’ve been talking about how the demise of human relationship — good, old-fashioned friendship — has altered the American political process.
MS. TIPPETT: So I guess the question is, I mean, I always get a little bit nervous, because we’re hearing this a lot. To me, the question is how can those human relationships be recreated? Probably not by everyone becoming Facebook friends but some 21st-century version.
MS. RIVLIN: One thing I find encouraging is that I’ve gone out around the country with various groups that were polling representative groups of citizens together in the same room. These are not people that are lifelong friends; they’ve been chosen at random from lists and invited to come and spend a few hours working on a problem. In my case, it was the budget problem if I was involved with it.
And actually, if people sit around a table and talk and they get to know each other and they say where are you from and where are you from and what do you do, the respect grows rather quickly. And the encouraging thing is when you sit quite average citizens down from different walks of life and give them the facts, as Pete was saying earlier — help them understand here’s the problem and here are some options and things you might do — they come up with very sensible centrist solutions. It’s not that hard.
MR. DOMENICI: That’s right.
MS. RIVLIN: It’s really pretty simple arithmetic. And people can do this. It isn’t beyond human capacity.
MS. TIPPETT: Hmm.
MR. DOMENICI: Now, let me just add to what I said.
MS. TIPPETT: Go ahead.
MR. DOMENICI: Point number one: It would be good if members of the United States Senate could become friends. Now, that’s on its own separate …
MS. TIPPETT: And you don’t mean Facebook friends.
MR. DOMENICI: Right. No, I mean real friends.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DOMENICI: I don’t know, maybe they’re good too. I don’t know. I’m not going to chastise anybody.
MR. DOMENICI: But what I’m talking about, there’s one kind. But there’s also friends that are born in the threshold of this problem.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DOMENICI: And what’s necessary there is an agreement as to what the facts are. We’ve got to go from the citizen who is jibbering and jabbering about how bad these Congress people are to a chair to that person with somebody she would — she or he would trust and try to get them to believe something, some part of this problem. Maybe that we’ve got a problem. That would be a step for some.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DOMENICI: And then it’s got to be solved. That might be some and that there are people trying to solve it who are not cheats and thieves and dumb bums. I think more and more people are beginning to get this, that the serious problem in the future is the debt of our country.
MS. TIPPETT: What does it feel like — I think it’s happened to the two of you, that because of these bipartisan activities, you’ve been deemed to be traitors by people in your own parties. What’s that experience like? And what has that taught you also about the hardness of this?
MS. RIVLIN: I can certainly attest to that, traitorous me. No, traitor is not too strong a word. I have Democratic colleagues and friends, some of them right here at the Brookings Institution, who think that I am betraying the cause by working with Republicans and working in a bipartisan combination.
And of course, on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, I got a lot of mail because that was a public thing. And most of my hate mail — and there was hate mail — was from the radical left. I am sure that the Republicans got the same kind of mail from the radical right. But the radical right wasn’t interested in me; it was the radical left that thought I was betraying the cause.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I want to zero in on the language of civility, which is a word that we’re using for this project but it’s a word that also makes me uncomfortable. You know, it’s a little overused and it has connotations of mildness and niceness. You know, can it be a powerful enough force to really make a difference in this kind of really historic difficulty we’re in. The two of you, through your experiences working together on this plan, but also in all of your decades, you know, when civility is a real, robust, effective thing even in hard political moments, what are the qualities it has? What does it do? How does it work?
MS. RIVLIN: I think one quality is you have to listen to the other person and try to figure out what they’re really saying. And we seem to be losing that ability to listen. And you have to get them to explain why they think what they think. I teach at Georgetown University and I taught a course this year that I invented last spring called Decision Making in a Polarized Environment. And I decided, after talking to my students, that they were mostly Democrats — not all — and mostly liberals and that it would be good if I got one of my really conservative friends, my friend Alison Fraser from the Heritage Foundation, to come.
And I started by asking questions in your manner about how she got to the positions that she holds and then let the class in on it. I think they came away with a very different idea of how a real conservative thinks.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Actually, I think one of the most powerful and revealing questions you can ask is, “What do you mean when you say that?” You know, even when somebody uses a piece of vocabulary, to ask, “What do you mean by that?” Senator Domenici, when you think about civility as a robust and powerful thing, what is it? What are its components?
MR. DOMENICI: Well, it seems to me it’s really an interesting phenomenon, democracy, and it requires certain things. And if you can’t listen to those who disagree without becoming yourself bombastic and irrational, then this system has a hard time succeeding. And we’ve succeeded for a couple hundred years, but, you know, we want to succeed for a long time so we can be in the textbooks with the real longtime societies that lasted a couple thousand years. That won’t happen if you end up hating — which I have to talk about if I’m asking to talk about civility. If you end up being a hater and hating, you end up either taking a big chunk out of democracy or a small little piece out. And either way, you are really hurting this thing called democracy when you act the way some are now.
I would urge that citizens who are frustrated about their government not retain the position that the politicians are the bad guys and the crooks, but rather, try to see what the problems are, see what the facts are. And to do that, you’re going to have to open your ears a little bit and decide that you’ve got to listen.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Political Bridge People.” We’re at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. I’m with Pete Domenici, former Republican Senator of New Mexico, and Alice Rivlin, a veteran economist who served in numerous Democratic administrations. Together they co-chaired the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force.
So you two have been through many different chapters of American economic history. I wonder if you think that there is something in the nature of this moment, this crisis, that is making the politics of resolving it harder. And what I think of when I hear you talk about hatred, right, or not listening, there’s just — there’s so much fear out there. How do you think about that? How the particular nature of this economic downturn and the mess we’re in now is shaping that political crisis. Which I think is how people feel, that there is a political crisis as well as an economic crisis.
MS. RIVLIN: Well, I think they’re right. There is a political crisis in that we have not been able to make progress solving some major problems like the budget, like climate change, like a bunch of others because we are so gridlocked and so polarized. But I think you’re absolutely right that fear and playing upon that fear in order to get elected is a big part of the problem.
MS. TIPPETT: And do you see it as more of a dynamic than in previous times?
MS. RIVLIN: Well, it depends what previous times you mean.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. RIVLIN: I mean, we’ve had — this is the worst downturn, the economy, the financial crisis of ’08 and the recession that followed it the worst we’ve had since the Great Depression but nothing like as bad as the Great Depression.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. RIVLIN: That was a time of terrible fear and terrible hardship, and we’re much better off now than we were then. So it’s a little hard to understand why people are so susceptible to the fearmongering, but they are.
MR. DOMENICI: Yeah. I don’t know how to explain it excepting I would very much like to urge that people do everything they can to not make this an insolvable problem.
MS. TIPPETT: You mean just not even in our imaginations decide that it’s insolvable.
MR. DOMENICI: Yeah. The people should have confidence and hope and faith that we’re going to get something solved and work towards that, rather than the negative side. A democracy needs participation so it needs some hatemongers, I guess. We wouldn’t survive without them. But what we end up needing is confidence in the system and looking for the good part. And that’s a hard thing for a politician to ask of the public. I’m not running for anything so I can say it.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. DOMENICI: I do think I myself have ended up from time to time thinking that this is such a terrible economic time that we won’t solve it, and then I turn myself around and go to work on it and say, well, it’s just tough and that’s because we’re complicated and we’re powerful. And so it’s tough, but it’s solvable. I’m getting more confident because more people are joining the cause of trying to solve it.
MS. RIVLIN: I agree with that. I think one thing that we seem to have forgotten is the nature of our Constitution. It requires compromise because we built into the Constitution, our forefathers 200-some years ago, a lot of protections against majorities running amok. So we have all of these checks and balances, and you can’t get to a solution on anything really important under our Constitution unless you’re willing to compromise. And compromise has become sort of a dirty word.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. A reviled word, yeah.
MS. RIVLIN: Like it was a bad thing, to compromise.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. RIVLIN: I think we have to understand compromise is a good thing, and it requires people giving up things that they would otherwise support. And we have to learn to live with the institutions that we have because they were set up for good reasons.
MS. TIPPETT: I wrote down this Alan Simpson’s definition of politics. And of course, he’s another one of these bridge people now and your budget plan is part of that other constellation. He wrote: “In politics there are no right answers, only a continuing flow of compromises among groups resulting in a changing, cloudy, and ambiguous series of public decisions where appetites and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom.”
MS. RIVLIN: That’s a good quote from Alan.
MS. TIPPETT: That was a quote from Alan Simpson. But, you know, I think what citizens are longing for more is more of that knowledge and wisdom piece hanging out with the ambiguity and the compromise and the ambition.
So as we draw to a close, I want to just ask you a couple more questions along a little more personal lines — personal and political. So one of the people I’ve been talking to for this Civil Conversations project is Frances Kissling, who’s a longtime abortion rights activist. But she’s dedicated the last few years of her life to being in a real relationship with her political opposites. And she’s named a couple of questions that she feels must be asked at some point in real dialogue: Have there been moments where you could consider what you have found attractive in the position of the other and where you could also bring to the table what troubled you in your own position? And that being a fruitful, fruitful reflection.
MS. RIVLIN: Yes, I think so. The problem I struggle with most as a Democrat — I think it’s a very general problem — most of us believe in personal responsibility. We believe it for ourselves. We believe it for our kids. We believe people should take charge of their lives. And yet we also believe, in both personal and political space, in community responsibility for people who aren’t making it. And the really difficult thing is the trade-off at that margin. And I like to think of it in personal terms.
When you’re bringing up teenagers, you have to think all the time, do we let them get out there and make their own mistakes so they’ll learn? Or do we try to help them do the right thing?
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. RIVLIN: And there’s never any very clear answer to that. You do some of both and hope for the best.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. RIVLIN: But the idea that help for low-income people or help to go to college or that sort of thing is going to make people dependent seems to me a wrong idea. On the other hand, the idea that there are no limits to the amount that we should help people is also a wrong idea. And you have to get the compromise that’s workable.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. DOMENICI: I don’t know if what I’m going to tell you fits the question.
MS. TIPPETT: Something that Republicans do that bothers you.
MR. DOMENICI: Oh. Well, in my party, we have an awful lot of good people that run for office and they get elected and I’m proud of that. Lots of good governors — great ones, in fact. I do get bothered by their position on taxes when they, say, sign up with the gentleman that says he’ll never have another new tax. I think that position is irresponsible and it also doesn’t permit us to get things done because it polarizes instead of centralizing. And that’s one of the worst that we’ve got.
MS. TIPPETT: So finally, Alice Rivlin, you’ve called economics the science of hard choices.
MS. RIVLIN: I wasn’t the first to say that.
MS. TIPPETT: You weren’t the first. OK. It’s a good definition.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a sense in which, you know, the language of budgets is like dropping bombs from 50,000 feet. It feels like that. But you are people who are making those budgets, working on them, and you’re doing that as policymakers and as people. So right now one of the most controversial areas of all of these plans is what happens with Medicare and Medicaid. Long-term care is a huge issue. Both of you are 80 years old. Is that right? Are you 80 also?
MS. RIVLIN: I’m 81.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re 81. Magnificently.
MR. DOMENICI: I’m 80.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re 80.
MS. RIVLIN: He’s just a kid.
MS. TIPPETT: So I wonder how the human side of this for you comes into this and do you reckon with this on a human level even as you’re working with these numbers. No?
MS. RIVLIN: You mean on a personal level.
MR. DOMENICI: No.
MS. RIVLIN: No. Because neither of us are in danger of being in desperate need.
MR. DOMENICI: Yeah. Or our families.
MS. RIVLIN: And we also understand the problem well enough to know that nothing on the table at the moment is going to endanger seniors in a serious way, especially not in Medicare. So I don’t think that’s really relevant. But let me say the personal skills make a difference and I want to tell a story about Pete.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. RIVLIN: We got into a controversy in our commission at one point. And we were co-chairing and I was sitting there at the table thinking this is in danger of falling apart. But then the politician with whom I was working said, “Let’s call a recess and have some coffee.” I don’t know actually what he did. He got some of the members over in a corner. I suspect what he said is, we’ve got to get back to making this work and what would it take to get you onboard or something like that. But in any case, so they came back and the atmosphere was entirely different. That was the experience of the old chairman coming into play. And you have to have some skills of bringing people together to make these kinds of things work.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think you’re saying taking them out of the policy discussion, having the coffee, talking together as human beings and coming back …
MS. RIVLIN: Yeah. It worked.
MR. DOMENICI: Well, it worked because these were amicable people. They really wanted to do something for their country and they just had to be told that it was fix it right now or we ain’t going to get anything. And they had to be told that. Is that what you want, all of you? It’s going to fall apart. If you want to give a little and want me to take back something but you can’t be what he and he and he is or we’re gone. So let’s sit down here and have a cup of coffee and let’s talk about do we want to do something or not. And we got an answer, yes, we want to do something. So you’ve got to do it that way. That’s the first premise, that we want to do something.
Now that means you’ve got to change something because the way you are saying you want to go won’t fit the definitions we require. I mean, we go outside the circle. So we’ve got to get it back in. And we talked long enough to come back in. And we weren’t on tune but we were close enough to argue amicably with the full group. Maybe that’s how we got it done.
MS. TIPPETT: So between you, you raised 13 children and I don’t know how many grandchildren.
MS. RIVLIN: Most were his.
MR. DOMENICI: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Like eight are his.
MS. TIPPETT: How do you talk to your grandchildren, great-grandchildren about this? What questions do they ask and what do you have to say to them as they think about their economic future?
MS. RIVLIN: Oh, I’m very pleased that I have grandchildren — young adults now — who are very interested in these issues and are able to talk about them sensibly and constructively.
MS. TIPPETT: But do they ask questions that surprise you? Do they bring a new perspective that …
MS. RIVLIN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: … makes you think differently? What? How?
MS. RIVLIN: Yes, I think so. I think young people today, a lot of young adults, are very turned off about politics. They’re much more tuned into community action of various sorts. They volunteer. Although that’s not true of one of my grandsons. He’s quite interested in the political system.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. What do you say to your children? What wisdom do you have to impart to them about their economic future?
MR. DOMENICI: I don’t know why — we’re not doing the job too well, I guess. They don’t seem to talk to me about that.
MR. DOMENICI: I mean, they’re way too busy. If you’d see what they’re doing, you’d say, well, you’ve got to keep it going so they can keep doing what they’re doing. That’s what your answer would be.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DOMENICI: And that’s the way I feel. I’ve got to keep this country going because these kids and grandkids are doing such incredible things. I wouldn’t want that to disappear and there be nothing for them to do. Right? So that’s how I feel about it. And I don’t want you to think there’s not personal relationship but they are busy in their own lives and doing their own things and getting educated. Some of them just seem to never finish school, Alice. There’s still another one working on doctor’s degree. I thought it was over with, but she’s still there.
MS. RIVLIN: Oh, I would echo that. I mean, I think that the point of everything that Peter and I are working on is a better country for everybody’s children and grandchildren, and I’m actually very heartened, not just by my own descendants, but by the students that I teach and come in contact with as I go around to universities. There are an awful lot of bright, dedicated young people in this country and that, I think, is very encouraging.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Well, thank you, Alice Rivlin, Pete Domenici. Thank you all for coming.
MS. TIPPETT: Alice Rivlin is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Pete Domenici retired as Senator of New Mexico in 2008. He’s now a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. There, together with Alice Rivlin, he co-chaired the Debt Reduction Task Force.
Watch my entire public discussion with Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin at onbeing.org. And please join your thoughts and your passion to the Civil Conversations Project, which continues online.
Watch the videos and weigh in at onbeing.org/ccp. Follow our show @Beingtweets. Follow me @KristaTippett.
On Being on air and online is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Stefni Bell, and Susan Leem. Special thanks this week to Bill Antholis, Laurie Boeder, and their colleagues at the Brookings Institution. Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.
MS. TIPPETT: Next time: shaping our technology to human purposes, with MIT’s Sherry Turkle. Please join us.