A couple of weeks ago we were invited to an event out in Lake Country – which for you non-Wisconsin readers is a lovely area about 30 miles west of Milwaukee filled with beautiful lakes and homes. I was grumbling about going – I wouldn’t know anybody and I wouldn’t have anything in common with anyone. However, since it was sort of a political must do, I viewed it as a “work thing,” put on my best summer outfit and my political smile, and off we went.
When we arrived, the hosts immediately and very graciously welcomed us into their home. As we explore the grounds, we see our dinner venue: a massive tent covering seven or eight tables, each adorned with nautical lanterns and flowers. It’s a fully catered affair, set against the backdrop of a beautiful, clear lake. In no time, the hosts tell us we’re seated at their table with “another guest and his wife.” About half hour into it, we’re milling around, making small talk with the 35 or so people, when there in walks a well-known politician and his wife. Turns out – they’re at our table. Small world, right?
Although this line of work has put me in contact with a lot of politicians over the years, for some reason I had never met this man or his wife. I knew his politics though – I know his party – and in spite of my red dress, it wasn’t mine. I kept thinking – great, what are we going to talk about that doesn’t set the tent on fire?
We talked about the Badgers, both football and basketball. We agreed that both teams should be good this year. We talked about Marquette and how great a school it is. We talked about gardening, small towns, brats and ice cream. We talked about our kids and our hopes for their futures. And whether by subconscious design or just coincidence, only briefly did we discuss politics, and it was in the context of how hard it is for politicians these days: how difficult the climate is; how impossible it is to get anything done, whether it’s in Wisconsin or Washington. All in all, it was a delightful evening and a reminder to me that if you can find common ground on something so important as your kid’s future, surely you can find common ground on all of the critical issues facing us today.
Different party, different lake: this one was at our house as we were hosting a fundraiser for a friend of ours. The group consisted mostly of Dems but not exclusively so – because people in Wisconsin love to say “I vote for the person, not the party.” (Although apparently our state, like the rest of the country is becoming more and more partisan – go figure). It was another beautiful evening and people clearly came to chat and have fun. Mingling about in different groups, there were discussions about clean water, education, local races, kids and dogs, health care, fiscal conservatism coupled with social activism, medical research, gardens, and the beauty of a summer evening. The event ran well over its designated end point; people were simply having a good time.
In cleaning up the next day, I was struck not by the differences between these two events, but by the similarities: by the guests conversing on all topics under the sun, the beautiful settings, and by the earnest and affable natures of the two politicians from opposing political parties. Both are decent, good people, just with vastly different politics. And the challenge for us as voters is to sort out the smiling natures from the ensconced stances on issues that are important to us. Should the government spend money on clean water? Should the government encourage public private partnerships? Does every child deserve an equal chance at a decent education? And what about health care? Or lower taxes? And adequately supporting our troops? All these issues matter deeply, as does who we send to Washington to take action and make difficult decisions.
I used to work at the Department of Education in Washington DC where really smart people would make reasoned arguments for one particular policy position or another and I would have to decide what the best course of action was. Positions on public policy can be spun different ways but facts can’t. The commitment to dollars being spent on education or medical research or clean water – those are on the books as are the votes that appropriated those dollars.
But, and here’s the problem with both parties, unless they work together to come to an agreement that allows for meaningful change, nothing will happen. We won’t find cures for cancer or Parkinson’s, we won’t advance kids with adequate knowledge, there won’t be innovation and development, growth will stagnate, and we’ll end up living in a Game of Thrones parody.
A good business deal is one that requires some give and take on the part of both entities making the deal. Agreement on public policy is no different – a good bill never has all of what one party wants in it. It just doesn’t. And the best politicians understand this art of compromise.
So whether your party is on the eastern shore of a west suburban lake or the western shore facing east on a great lake, it’s a given that people will gather to discuss golf games, vacations, business deals, their kid’s graduations, and politics and policy. And somewhere in the midst of all these conversations with strangers at a party, people will strive to make connections and find common ground.
So maybe every politician in Washington needs to go to a party.
Diane Rogers, Capstone Partner, draws on 25 years of experience working in state and federal government, offering clients expertise in public policy, politics, management, and strategic planning. Contact Diane here to find out more.