A recent forum brought together two of Minnesota’s best-known and most-respected former politicians to talk about the state of politics, public policy and why it is so hard for today’s policymakers to find common ground. The discussion between former Vice President Walter Mondale and retired U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger didn’t dive into specific policy proposals, but much of what the two had to say offer insights into the polarizing debate over health reform.

Mondale time and again said that Minnesota’s history in solving difficult issues like health policy could be a road map for the nation. In particular, he acknowledged Durenberger as one of the nation’s experts on health policy, calling his leadership on the issue a “national treasure.”

The conversation, moderated by long-time Minnesota Public Radio host Gary Eichten, included these reflections by Mondale and Durenberger on the gridlock that so often paralyzes Washington and St. Paul:

  • The two policy veterans agreed that what is missing in Congress today is a “sense of community,” as Mondale put it. Durenberger and Mondale agreed that their service in the U.S. Senate reinforced for them the importance of the slow, deliberative process of that chamber. As George Washington is said to have told Thomas Jefferson, the House of Representatives brings the public’s heat to issues. The Senate cools down the passions. Much like pouring hot tea into a saucer, “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it,” said Washington.

The diverse roles of the two chambers were reflected in the quick response of the House to the public and political urgency to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Yet, even many of the representatives who voted for the American Health Care Act said they were depending on the Senate to improve the legislation.

Doing so will require the Senate’s sense of community, yet it is that very spirit that may be in shortest supply, according to Mondale and Durenberger. If senators only represent their states or their partisan interests, it’s unlikely that good health policy will emerge. Deliberation, a long-term view and a sense of national community – what’s in the best interests of the country – are needed to craft an effective piece of legislation.

  • Eichten asked his two guests if it was possible to compromise on solutions without sacrificing principles. Durenberger said that compromise wasn’t over principles, but implementation of solutions. The need today is to find people within one’s party or across the aisle who agree that a problem exists, then work to craft a solution. He pointed to his work on the Americans With Disabilities Act as an example. He and several colleagues – both Republicans and Democrats – agreed that assuring the civil rights of disabled Americans was a core principle. How to accomplish that goal – the scope of legislation, funding, shared responsibilities between the private and the public sectors, as other logistical issues – became the topic of compromise.

The health care debate too often confuses tactics with principles. While a majority of policymakers seems to agree that access to care is an important principle, to cite just one example, there is little room for compromise on how to achieve the goal. Instead, both sides too often take an “all-or-nothing” stance. As Durenberger and Mondale pointed out, sometimes it’s most important to start the journey – to find small steps that can be taken – than to abandon the journey altogether.

  • Mondale and Durenberger also had messages of hope and a call to action for the public. Mondale urged the audience (and policymakers) to “read, study, learn” about issues. Don’t accept the talking points of one interest or another, don’t dismiss the news media as “enemies of the people” and don’t wait for others to get involved. Mondale urged the audience to make their voices heard with policymakers and with their fellow citizens. Don’t just complain, engage.

Durenberger rejected the idea that the turmoil in Washington had yet reached the point of a constitutional crisis. Instead, he called it a “crisis of the heart” of the American public. Politics – and especially money in politics – is excluding the role of citizens and “undercutting the value of people” in the policymaking process. Like Mondale, Durenberger urged citizens to get involved, to not leave policy only to politicians.

The Mondale-Durenberger discussion was hosted by the Selim Center for Lifelong Learning at the University of St. Thomas. More information on the center and its programs is available at www.stthomas.edu/selimcenter .