Time to be the Grown-ups in the Room

I’m An Adult Now — The Pursuit of Happiness

We are the grown-ups in the room. It is time for our cooler heads to prevail.

Ultimately, the grown-ups in the room will have to do their jobs
The Washington Post 9/29/13

A couple of months ago I was wondering when the adults and their cooler heads would prevail and we would settle back into the regular give and take of politics. It took me an alarmingly long time to figure out that after 25 years or so of working in politics, I am one of those adults. I have been through two government shutdowns (once in the Senate and once at a quasi-federal agency). I was a staff member in the House of Representatives during Clinton’s impeachment, I walked with my boss through an angry crowd of protesters to his vote on the Affordable Care Act, and I got a call from the frantic mother of an intern concerned about the safety her daughter during a shooting in the Capitol. Through all of that and more, those of us writing talking points and policy memos full of hyperbole and optimistic math knew that in the end the cooler-headed grown-ups in the room would prevail.

“I think the American people expect us to be able to act like adults, to get in a room and talk in a civil manner and to get something accomplished.”
Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) The New York Times 11/14/95

We are now the grown-ups. Those of us who make our careers working to advance or stop policy, to elect or defeat policymakers, and to bend national conversations in our direction, need to collectively say “ok, enough, let’s fix this.” We can go back to guys in chicken suits and click-bait fundraising appeals later, but for now we need to keep the whole system from unraveling.

Robert Reich: Where are the Grown-Ups in the White House?
Newsweek 3/22/17

Most of the people I know who work in politics are mostly good most of the time. They came to Washington to make the world a better place. We pull stunts, write over-the-top direct mail, and preach political fire and brimstone to whatever choir we happen to be facing. Sometimes we advance politically popular bad ideas knowing they won’t become policy (or at least hoping they won’t). We protect our positions now to ensure we are in positions to create change later. Some have gotten rich along the way. But ultimately we all have a set of beliefs we do what we can to advance.

I’m an Adult Now
The Pursuit of Happiness, 1986

It is difficult to imagine a more important time for those of us lucky enough to make our livings in politics to prove that there are far more good people working for the common good than not. This means both behaving in ways that bring honor to the profession and demonstrating that politics is an honorable profession. We need to be the grown-ups. Here’s what that means:

Not everything someone on the other side says or does demands more cow bell. Shouting about every claim or position a political opponent takes is like trying to govern in all caps.

Not everything your side says or does demands more cow bell either. It is OK to say someone in your own political party has a bad idea, may have faults, or maybe should stop talking for a while.

Be intellectually consistent and honest. If you thought an idea was good when Obama (or Bush, or Clinton, or the other Bush) was President either support it now or explain why you changed your mind. Do not reflexively accept or reject an idea because someone with a D or an R after their name says it.

Stop saying “if Obama/Clinton/Bush/the other Clinton/the other Bush did/said that, Fox/CNN/the New York Times/the Wall Street Journal would be all over it.” If it was bad then it is bad now. If it was good then it is good now. The “mom likes you best” whine makes you sound like a nine-year-old and does nothing to advance policy or improve the quality of politics.

When you are going over legislative ideas, making the case for bills to support or oppose, or otherwise engaging in the hard work of governing, start with “is this good policy?” Then get to the politics. Most members of Congress are in safe seats, you can afford to be a little brave.

Make the democratic and political process a priority. We can only work in this system if the system itself works. Just because the rules disadvantage you now does not mean they are bad rules. Similarly respect (and promote) the democratic norms that allow our system to function. A lot of what makes democracy work is not written down, it is simply what one does. Do that.

Stop attacking the character of those with whom you disagree. People are not their positions. Just because someone disagrees with you does not make them evil or stupid, even if they disagree about things you consider important.

Stop running down the institutions you worked so hard to work in. If you hate Washington and Congress, maybe you should find another profession. Learn how to code. Open a food truck. No one is forcing you to live and work here. You are welcome to leave anytime.

Talk the walk. Praise your political opponents for their commitment to public service. Thank advocates for bringing issues to your attention. Remind the American people that our democracy demands that we all engage with it and each other.

We want grown-ups to make difficult choices we don’t want to have to make for ourselves. We want their cooler heads to sort out what is really worth being worked up about from that which isn’t a big deal. We want them to calmly sort through troubling situations. Grown-ups are supposed to sit around tables and figure things out, even if that means not always getting all they want or being unpopular. Grown-ups may not be our friends, but we respect them.

So to my fellow political operatives and strategists, to my colleagues on the Hill and in the administration, to my friends in the media and at advocacy organizations -– and to your friends and colleagues and their friends and their colleagues: It is time to be the grown-ups, America needs our cooler heads.