In many respects, both Lanny Davis and Michael Steele serve as political anthropologists for the other side; Lanny helps those who watch Fox understand Democrats while Michael Steele helps those who watch MSNBC understand Republicans.
Both Lanny and Michael have held high-profile positions over the years. During the Clinton White House—especially during Monica Lewinsky mess—it was not uncommon to see Lanny Davis defend the President from those who wanted his prosecution and resignation. Much of what he learned during that period was turned into an earlier book, “Truth to Tell: Tell it Early, Tell it Yourself” and later “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America.” After leaving the White House, Lanny built a successful practice advising people and organizations how to deal with the political and media fallout that comes from messy and embarrassing situations.
This year, Lanny and Michael joined The Luncheon Society for two gatherings. The first took place in San Francisco for a lunch over at One Market on September 10th. On the following evening—September 11th—we sat down in Los Angeles for a wonderful dinner at Napa Valley Grille. Lanny has joined The Luncheon Society on numerous occasions and one of the most memorable was on the eve of the 2008 California Primary, when the Obama people sat at one end while the Hillary people sat on the other. There were passionate arguments that last long after the desserts were collected.
Michael Steele was elected Lt. Governor of Maryland in 2002. He was the first African American to win the office and in 2006, ran for the US Senate to succeed the retiring Paul Sarbanes. It was an uphill battle in a traditional Democratic state, made worse in 2006, because it would be a banner year for Democrats. Steele won the nomination but lost the general election. However, Steele emerged as an effective surrogate for John McCain during the 2008 presidential race. While the Republican ticket failed badly, Steele’s star continued to rise. That winter, he was named the first African American leader of the RNC and positioned to the party to retake the Congress, which it did successfully in 2010. However, Steele publicly tussled with Rush Limbaugh and others who felt that he was not tough enough on the Obama White House.
Michael Steele was denied a second term as RNC Chair by Reince Priebus, who proceeded to lead the GOP back into the wilderness by alienating Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, Gays, Lesbians, and anybody else. That proved a critical error because it gave the Obama campaign a political lane to beat Romney and the Republicans in the general election. Both Davis and Steele have joined forces in an enterprise called Purple Nation Solutions, which wants to send both parties down a more moderate path, even though they both believe that the partisan debate on basic cable is driving the national conversation to the edges not toward the center.
There was a time when personal friendships did not stop at the partisanship edge. Long into their career, when they would both attack each other’s positions from the Senate, Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch remained close personal friends. Capitol Hill was full of “odd couple friendships” like Tip O’Neill and Jerry Ford, or even much earlier in the careers, the unlikely friendship of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Today’s Washington became far more poisonous and the attacks are far more personal. It’s to the point where if President Obama came out in favor of Father’s Day, Fox would headline that the President as “Anti-Mother.” It makes one wonder if the great legislative battles of the 1960’s were refought in the current political environment, nothing would ever get through committee. Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Open Housing would have fallen victim to the politics of personal destruction; they were very tough sells during the 1960’s but would be impossible today.
Over the past generation, both parties have sharpened their ideological knives. It started back when FDR as president and picked up speed during the Johnson Administration. Conservative Democrats from the South coexisted with liberal Democrats from the North and they balanced each other out. Liberals Republicans from the Northeast found a way to live with conservative Republicans from the west and former Democrats who changed parties from the South. Because seniority drove committee chairmanships, Civil Rights legislation was forestalled by conservative Southern Democrats who were often pitted against liberal Northern Democrats who wanted reform. It took liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats to pass landmark legislation.
Lanny Davis noted that by the mid 1980’s, most of the liberal Republicans like Clifford Case, Ed Brooke, Charles Percy, and Jacob Javits were long gone. By the mid 1990’s, when moderate Southern Democrats like Fritz Hollings, John Breaux, Howell Heflin, and others retired, conservative Republicans replaced them. Today the remaining liberal Republicans and conservative rural Democrats are endangered species, often marginalized by the driving narratives of their own parties. As Michael Steele noted, the center collapsed and the arguments and counterarguments ran to either side of the political spectrum.
Is there a way for a natural cross-party consensus to emerge? Yes. The answer might surprise observers. It is found in the current conversation that is taking place in the Senate as token gun control reform quietly emerges out of committee. While Chris Matthews and others have criticized that the President has been AWOL on the gun control, especially after the carnage of Newtown, but a quiet group of moderate Senators are slowly working across the aisle.
By taking his foot off of the gas for a moment, President Obama may have neutralized the partisan vitriol just enough for others to build an opening. It has given a group of moderate senators a chance to reboot gun control, even if it is limited in scope. The current legislation addresses universal background checks but is seen as weak by others because it does not attempt to revive the 1993 legislation championed by Dianne Feinstein that outlawed new purchases of certain semi-automatic weapons.
However, the 1957 Civil Rights Act—as weak as it was—nonetheless set the table for the great Civil Rights legislation that came during the 1960’s. Perhaps we are a decade away from the great gun control legislation of the late 2010’s. If it is going to happen, Lanny Davis and Michael Steele believe it will take a vibrant moderate center with voices from both sides of the aisle.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.