Lee Hamilton has some things to say about the state of the country.
The former longtime Democratic congressman from Southern Indiana and I talk in a studio just a few doors down from his office here on Indiana University’s campus. He serves here as senior advisor to the Center for Representative Government.
As Hamilton, 86, and I chat, the members of the Congress in which he served for 34 years scramble to avoid the second federal government shutdown in two weeks. They fail, and the government closes, once again, for a few hours before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives cobble together a compromise that will stabilize things for a year. The cost is that the deficit will explode by at least a trillion dollars.
At the same time, the stock market – spooked, analysts say, by concerns about these deficits, interest rates and the government’s instability – takes another shrieking dive, dropping more than 1,000 points in a single day. This also is the second time in days this has happened.
Hamilton doesn’t talk about these events.
At least not directly.
He starts by expressing sympathy for the people who serve as president of the United States.
He says no one is qualified to be president. The job is too big, the responsibilities too immense, for any one human being to fill the role to perfection.
He’s known nine presidents. All of them, Hamilton says, talked about the restraints imposed on the office.
“We talk about how the president is the most powerful person on earth, and perhaps he is,” Hamilton says.
But that power exists within constraints.
The effective presidents, Hamilton argues, learn to work within those constraints to get things done.
Hamilton’s implied message is twofold and clear.
The first part is that we Americans often have unrealistic expectations about what presidents, regardless of their party, can accomplish.
Particularly on their own.
That’s the second part.
Good presidents don’t accomplish things by dictating to people or by issuing orders. The presidents who get things done understand that their greatest power is the power to persuade. To serve the country, they must bring people along with them.
Great presidents know how to work with others, including those who don’t agree with them.
Then Hamilton talks about how government itself should work.
He notes the discontent that dominates the land. He says many Americans have lost their faith in our institutions, in our government, even in the country itself.
The causes of this are many, Hamilton adds. Some Americans may be upset that they are not paid what they think they should be. Or that their children won’t be able to afford lives and homes as comfortable as the ones they’ve known. Or that other parts of their lives just are not secure.
Donald Trump understood these concerns, Hamilton says. The president didn’t cause them, but he read those Americans’ fears better than anyone else and gave voice to them. That’s what put him in the White House.
But anger and unhappiness are neither policies nor solutions.
The remedy Hamilton proposes sounds surprising, but it shouldn’t be. He was, after all, one of Congress’ master negotiators, the guy who was sent into room after room after room to bring warring sides together and close the deal.
He says we need robust partisanship. This country works best, he argues, when the two-party system is strong.
The two parties serve as checks on each other, mechanisms that test ideas and make sure that varied voices and concerns are heard as decisions are made.
Hamilton says he watches the warring going on within the Republican Party with concern.
The issues that historically have animated the GOP – fiscal restraint, respect for traditions and institutions, national defense – are vital to the country’s success and survival. Those voices need to be heard in the nation’s discussions and decision-making.
“America needs a strong Republican Party,” Hamilton, a Democrat his entire career, says.
This country, he adds, works best with strong leaders with firm principles who trust each other enough to work through differences.
Hamilton’s message is clear.
We need to start listening to and working with each other once more.
That’s the way to make America great again.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.