The Wisdom of John Hamre

The following letter from John Hamre arrived in an email a few days ago from my good friend Col. Randy Larsen (Ret.), author of Our Own Worst Enemy: Asking the Right Questions About Security to Protect You, Your Family, and America.

John Hamre is the President & CEO of the bipartisan CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies). He previously served as the 26th U.S. deputy secretary of defense, under secretary of defense (comptroller), staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and deputy assistant director for national security and international affairs in the Congressional Budget Office…

Randy titled his email “The Wisdom of John Hamre”. See why…

From: John J. Hamre
Date: June 23, 2011
Re: The Underlying Cause of Our Political Crisis

Honestly, this memo is more for my non-American friends who always ask me these days, “Why can’t you Americans make a decision and get on top of your problems? This isn’t the America we remember.” I hear some variation on that question every day. It is the product of the particular path our politics has taken over the past 30 years. 

Every 10 years, America takes a census to determine population size and distribution, and then adjusts congressional districts to reflect the changes. In the majority of states, the redistricting is done by politicians (guided by computer-laden political operatives) to design congressional districts favorable to the ruling party. Both political parties have engineered for themselves “safe” districts where political bias is sufficient to ensure the party candidate wins in the general election. As a result, the only election that matters in 80% of the districts is primary elections, where party loyalists rule the day. 

This explains the polarization of American politics where Republicans represent conservatives and Democrats represent liberals. No one represents the 40% of the electorate that considers itself moderate independents. In many states they are not even allowed to vote in the primaries. 

When it comes to national politics, about 20-25% call themselves liberals, and 35-40% call themselves conservatives. For presidential elections, no one can get elected only with their base voters. Any successful candidate must also win the majority of moderate independents. 

So here is the problem. 

Moderate independents want sensible answers to the nation’s problems. The respective liberal and conservative “base” voters want ideological answers. And President Obama and Congressional Republicans are trying to find a compromise that retains the loyalty of their base, but wins the confidence of moderate pragmatists. 

President Obama could assure his re-election by striking a sensible deal with Congressional Republicans. But in the process he would likely undercut the prospects of Democrat candidates running for office in the Congress. 

Republicans have just the reverse challenge. They could guarantee their dominance of the Congress if they compromise with President Obama, but sacrifice their candidate for president in the 2012 campaign. 

That is the central paradox that has brought our politics to a standstill. Both parties are groping for a tactical solution to a strategic problem. 

Will we find a grand compromise to move the country forward? Maybe, but the underlying root causes of this problem are pulling us in the reverse direction. The prevailing thinking in Washington think tank circles is that we will find a solution only when the crisis becomes intolerable. Good grief. I can hardly stand it now. 

What I find ironic is that I honestly believe that two-thirds of the voters will support a sensible compromise if politicians will ever give them one. What is wrong with our system when two-thirds of the voters are forced to the outside while politicians pander to the one-third that populates the fringes of the two parties? 

When I finish this little explanation to my foreign friends they usually stare back with a blank look. The world wants a thoughtful American leadership, and they can’t believe that we have become so self-absorbed. 

Last night over dinner a very wise foreign-born American friend asked me, “Do you think America is still relevant to the rest of the world?” His question stunned me to silence. I blurted out “Yes, of course” and he quietly asked, “Where? And in what way?”

It is hard to find an answer to his question if we can’t find a way to clean up our own domestic mess.

I fully expect that I have offended many of you with this note.

Can You Look Into The Future?

We love our country.

We grew up in patriotic households, proud of our family members’ service in our armed forces.

We grew up with friends in different political parties and didn’t consider it an insurmountable obstacle to friendship or figuring out the best answers to our problems.

And we are disappointed in the lack of leadership from our elected and appointed officials as well as the tone of the debate promoted by our media.

We’re tired of the constant spin and don’t think either party has all the right answers.

We hold true Abraham Lincoln’s words delivered in Springfield, Illinois on June 16, 1858.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

And yet leaders of all stripes seem to be intent on using all of the tools at their disposal to divide us.

How do you think this is going to play out?

Will you be better off in 2020?

Will America be better off in 2020?

Or do you think the media & political machines will try to work us into a frenzy for the elections in 2012 then again in 2014, 2016 & 2018…?

That they’ll offer us empty promises they don’t intend to keep and solutions they’ll never pursue while continuing to bait and demonize the other side resulting in gridlock and division?

Is that the America you want to live in?

So many of the challenges facing our nation cannot be resolved in the short term but pushing them off won’t make them go away.

At some point, they’re going to become our responsibility. 

This is as good a day as any to get started.

So what if we started thinking about 2020 now? 

About what kind of country we wanted to live in?

What kind of leaders we wanted to elect?

What kind of campaign would we support if we were less worried about today’s sound bite and more focused on tomorrow’s goals?

What would you do today if you believed you were part of the solution?

We’ve created Foresight is 2020 to provide food for thought on where we are, how we got here and where we’re going and offer a different tone for the conversation around the elections leading up to and including 2020 inspired by the common values and shared interests that make us proud to be Americans.