One is spicy and one is mild, but two formerly-influential members of the United States Congress were united in serving the same flavor messages Wednesday at Marquette Law School:
Young people should step up to get involved in politics and the political system needs to function in ways that serve the broad needs of the country.
David Obey is a Democrat who represented northern Wisconsin for 42 years and Thomas Petri is a Republican who represented central Wisconsin for 35 years before each retired. Each held major committee chairmanships that put them at the center of momentous decisions.
The two have joined in making appearances around Wisconsin in what they call “a civic dialogue tour” encouraging engagement in politics, and that brought them to an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall.
Obey is well-known for his sharp tongue and Petri for his mild demeanor, and that was in evidence Wednesday.
Obey told the audience of about 200 that the political process is “the only thing that stands between us and political chaos.”
Petri said polling among Republicans has found “compromise” is regarded by many as a bad word, but “common ground” is a term that is more appealing – even though the two have a lot in common when it comes to what Congress needs to do. He said there have been other periods in American history when compromise was frowned on by many.
Obey said that when he first was elected to Congress in 1969, more than a third of all seats were in districts were in competitive districts, ones where either a Republican or Democrat stood a reasonable chance of winning. Now, he said, the figure is under 10% and many members of Congress have little incentive to work with others who have differing views.
This won’t change until redistricting of congressional districts, conducted following each 10-year census, is handled by a bipartisan or nonpartisan bodies who don’t configure districts to help one party or the other be assured of victory. Obey said.
Obey summarized the duties of people who run for Congress: They need to define their differences from others who want to be in Congress. And once they are in Congress, they need to work to work on reconciling those differences with others of different views to get necessary and good things done. The current Congress, overall, is characterized by people who are good at the first and bad at the second, he said.
Candidates with no experience are leading Republican primary field. Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, asked the two what that says.
“Well, beats me,” said Petri. “We’re still in the early stages of the process.”
How would he react if Donald Trump won the Republican nomination? “I would be quite shocked, as a member of the Republican Party,” Petri said. He said there was a real possibility that the candidate may be determined at the Republican national convention in summer 2016, and the candidate might be someone not in the running now, such as Mitt Romney.
Obey compared people saying they support Trump or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to people saying. “I have to have surgery next Wednesday so I think I’m going to go to a carpenter.” He called it “amazing” that people think Trump could deal with the nuances and complications of what a president must deal with.
On the Democratic side, Obey said he was surprised by how well Sen. Bernie Sanders is doing in presenting himself to the country. Obey said, “He’s been a huffer and a puffer for a long time” – someone with strong rhetoric but not much success getting support from others.
Petri said he thought Sanders support had similarities to the support for Barack Obama in 2008 when he was running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Both ended by urging young people to become engaged in politics. Over the last half century, Obey said, a lot of big, positive changes have occurred in areas such as social programs, environmental clean-up and education, and more good things will occur if good decisions are made ahead. Petri said good things that are part of American life will not stay that way if people won’t assume responsibility for them.
Video of the one-hour conversation may be viewed by clicking here.