By Dalton Karwacki
The divided state of politics today can largely be attributed to the fact that politicians no longer know each other personally, according to former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean.
Kean spoke on Wednesday night at an event hosted by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. Kean was governor from 1982 to 1990, the last New Jersey governor to serve two full terms. In 2002, he was chosen to serve as the chairman of the 9/11 Commission. He was also the president of Drew University from 1990 to 2005.
“You cannot deal with [the problems facing this country], unless your politics is right, unless you have a political system and political people who are geared to deal with these things,” Kean said. “People who would look at the problem, and not just how to get through to the next election.”
One of the biggest obstacles to solving today’s problems is that the members of the two political parties do not even know each other, according to Kean. He said that when he was growing up and when he was governor, Democrats and Republicans were friends, and would often have dinner at each other’s houses.
“My father was in the United States Congress, so I was brought up in Washington,” Kean said. “His committee chairman was a Democrat and [my father] was the ranking Republican on the committee. The committee chairman used to come over on Sunday afternoons and they’d talk about what they could and couldn’t agree on and what was necessary to do for the country that week. They’d both agree to get that done. They were very close friends.”
Kean also placed blame for the hostility in modern politics on the loss of the political center.
“The center is [made up of] moderates who are not necessarily far to the left or right, and maybe you can talk them into a moderate program sponsored by a member of the other party,” he said. “There used to be lots of these people. The center is disappearing now. It is very hard to find that center. There are a few left, but not a great many in either party. This last election knocked out a lot of them.”
Kean said that much of the reason for this is the practice of gerrymandering, drawing political districts so that they are not competitive, favoring one party over another. This makes it difficult for politically moderate candidates from the other party to get elected.
“Democrats are happy to let Republicans have their Republican districts as long as they get their Democratic districts,” he said. “What happened was that you ended up with maps where you have very few districts in the entire country that are competitive. This means that Congressmen didn’t have to worry about reelection. This means that the only real pressure on Congressmen comes from their own party in the form of a primary threat, with attacks from Democrats coming from the left and attacks on Republicans coming from the right. This drives the left further left and the right further right.”
Kean said that refinding the political center is key to bringing civility back in the game.
“We’ve got to change the way we do politics,” he said. “We’ve got to again start finding the center. We’ve got to start rewarding courage in politics, even if we don’t agree with them on every issue.”
To this end, Kean said that it was vital to somehow get the best people possible to be interested in politics.
“We’ve got to then convince the brightest and the best that it’s worthwile going into politics,” he said.
Kean said that when his father ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, three Democratic members of the Ways and Means Committee endorsed him; something that Kean said would likely lose someone their committee seat and possibly their placement in the party today.
He said that, when he was serving in politics, things hadn’t changed, that Democrats and Republicans could still be friends.
“I had just as many friends who were Democrats as were Republicans,” Kean said. “Some of them, we didn’t agree much on politics, but we went to each other’s weddings and baptisms and funerals. We were close friends and we’re close friends to this day.”
According to Kean, a big reason for this change is the difference in the Washington social scene.
“When I was growing up in Washington, my father worked five and a half days out of the week,” he said. “He worked half a day Saturday because constituents would come and he would stay to greet them.”
According to Kean, since most members of Congress worked five and a half days a week, they and their families would stay in town over the weekend. Their children would go to school together and become friends, and the parents would get to know each other.
“Some of them were Republicans, some of them were Democrats, we didn’t pay much attention to that; we’d play ball with them and would study together and all that,” he said. “My parents would go to parties, and Republicans and Democrats would have dinner together. When they had to work across the aisle, they could.”