"If negotiators sit on opposite sides of the table and repeat their long-held positions, they will fail. If they sit on the same side of the table, and put the problems on the other side, they can succeed." — Jean Monnet, father of the European Union.
Here are thoughts about the year ahead after spending most of the past six weeks away from Seattle.
In North Carolina, other Northwest states, California and Arizona, I saw many poorly clothed people, rundown housing, abandoned storefronts and streetcorner day-job seekers. The official numbers show gradual upticks in national economic growth and employment. The Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area in North Carolina is especially prospering. But more people are truly hurting than we suspect. Take a drive through Coos Bay and North Bend, Ore., Oakland, Stockton, or Bakersfield, Calif., or South Phoenix, Ariz., and you will see.
My life partner, Jeri Smith-Fornara, and I shared a holiday dinner with poor and homeless people in Prescott, Ariz., while others warmed themselves outside over a homemade bonfire in 30-degree chill. A few blocks away, bars and restaurants were overflowing. There are, of course, many hungry and homeless among us every day in prosperous Seattle and the Eastside.
Another impression from the road: There are a lot of angry and confused people everywhere who have little faith in their government, Wall Street or just about any major institution other than the military. Dispassionate discussion is hard to find, in particular, on such emotional issues as gay rights, gun control, abortion, immigration, marijuana legalization and religious rights. The Seattle metro area is a political monoculture where opinion already has settled on such issues. But we are an exception.
The most dismaying fact entering 2013, for Americans everywhere, is that we have not broken free of the political and ideological polarizations that have grown steadily over the past 20 years. Retiring Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, in a farewell interview, said that "hatreds" developing in the Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama years were "a cancer eating at the heart of our politics." He said that the last two years were the worst in this respect. I agree. They have been as toxic as the end days of the Vietnam- and Watergate-burdened Nixon presidency.
The year ahead has potential to be one of the angriest and least productive in public policymaking that we ever have experienced. The ongoing "fiscal cliff" fiasco has provided a foretaste of things to come. Unless there is a political climate change, much of the next four years will be consumed with a rolling series of budget showdowns. The Congress taking office later this month will be even more polarized and partisan than the unlamented one just departed. Moderate, results-oriented senators and members of Congress, such as our own Rep. Norm Dicks and Sens. Dick Lugar, Kent Conrad, Olympia Snowe and Lieberman, have retired or been defeated.
Events have pushed to the forefront non-budget-related issues, which will receive attention early in the new congressional session. But they will not be easy to resolve because the country is closely divided on them.
The Newtown, Conn., school shootings have generated fresh demand for gun control of some kind. But they also were followed by unprecedented numbers of gun purchases by citizens feeling threatened by the prospect of gun control. High-profile mass shootings, daily killings by two and threes in big-city neighborhoods, thousands of suicides by firearms, and even the gun killings of President Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, and the attempted murder of President Reagan have not generated sufficient public anger over the past half-century to result in effective gun-control laws. The new Congress will debate but have a difficult time legislating restrictions even on sale of automatic weapons and their ammunition. Tougher handgun control? Only in a few states and cities. Perhaps the only immediate practical effect of the Connecticut shootings will be a more serious national examination of mental-health and popular-culture-related factors leading to mass killings. Our kids, in particular, are being immersed daily in media that treat violence, sexual exploitation and casual mayhem as topics of entertainment. Have a beef with others? Mow them down, all of them.
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