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Political vets: Current climate poisonous

Former Congressman Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., left, gives his opening remarks as former Congressman Max Sandlin, D-Texas, center, and moderator Dusty Johnson, Gov. Dennis Daugaard's chief of staff, right, look on during a McGovern Conference session Monday afternoon at the Sherman Center on DWU's campus in Mitchell about moving beyond partisanship. The focus of this year's conference was "Moving Beyond Political Polarization." (Chris Huber/Republic)

In the 1990s, politics in Washington, D.C., was a hardball game, but things still got done, two former members of Congress said Monday.

Democrat Max Sandlin, who served four terms from Texas' First District, and Republican Gil Gutknecht, who represented Minnesota's First District for six terms, spoke during the annual McGovern Conference at Dakota Wesleyan University.

They agreed that unlike then, partisan politics now is so poisonous that not much is getting accomplished in the nation's capital.

"It's almost a cancer growing on our political system," Gutknecht said.

"I've never seen partisanship so bad in my life and in my study of history," Sandlin said.

The two men were colleagues for eight years, and got along easily before, during and after their forum, including eating their lunch together. They will stop in DWU classrooms today and speak with students.

Sandlin is married to another former representative, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who represented South Dakota in the House from 2004-2011. She was not at the conference.

It was the first McGovern Conference held since the Oct. 21 death of George McGovern, a former South Dakota Democratic Party executive secretary, as well as a two-term congressman and three-term senator. McGovern helped select the theme for the conference, "Moving Beyond Political Polarization."

Gutknecht said in the 1990s, with President Clinton, a Democrat, and Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich leading the GOP, there was open warfare at times.

Clinton was impeached by the House in 1998, although the Senate did not convict him in 1999, and he was able to complete his second term. Gutknecht said all through that crisis, Clinton continued to meet with members of Congress from both parties, and bills were passed.

He said that President Clinton and Congress balanced the budget and paid down on the debt, which seems unbelievable to some people now. Clinton, Gutknecht said repeatedly, was "a master" at politics.

The political climate changed when President George W. Bush took office in 2001.

"And it has not gotten better under this president. I don't think President Obama meets with Democrats, much less Republicans," Gutknecht said. "If you really want people in politics to get along with you, you reach out with an open palm, not a closed fist."

The ongoing political war is "grinding the country to a halt," Sandlin said, while ignoring the farm bill and other matters and putting the government on the edge of the "fiscal cliff," where deep cuts and sharp tax hikes would be mandated if Congress cannot reach a budget deal by the end of the year.

The national politicians have done nothing meaningful for almost a year and a half, he said, and now they are facing tough decisions in a short time period. The American people are willing to support a deal, and would make sacrifices if the problems are explained to them, and the options listed.

"I'm hoping we're going to get to that point," he said. If not, decisions will be made for them, and some of the consequences will be difficult for the country and the politicians to accept.

As long as negative campaigning works, candidates and parties have used it, Gutknecht said, but with increased public outcry, that may come to a close.

"We may be about at the end of this cycle," he said.

"It's going to take compromise," Sandlin said. "I don't think you're going to reach consensus. Where we can reach is compromise."

He said during his eight years in Congress, there were hugely divisive issues on the table. Still, the government operated, and legislation was enacted.

Gutknecht said he retired from Congress against his will when he was defeated in 2006, but he thinks in some ways he was ready to depart.

Now, he can improve his golf game, attend conferences, and consider his options. The wear and tear of fundraising and campaigning got to him, Gutknecht admitted.

"It takes a disproportionate amount of time and energy," he said. "It is corrosive. I do believe that."

He said it "takes its toll and has an impact" on the politician, and on their family. It's also a 24/7 life, with the politician being treated like a country doctor, with people always wanting to talk business.

Sandlin said over the years, he has had their dog poisoned, garbage sifted through, and knows of times politicians were watched closely and had their phones tapped.

Still, both men said their near-lifelong love of politics remains strong.

Gutknecht, 61, said he started in politics as a Boy Scout, and was inspired by a high school teacher when he was growing up in Iowa. He was a junior delegate to the 1968 Iowa State Republican Convention.

The "huge, divisive issue" at the time was Daylight Savings Time, he said. The debate was rancorous and people were passionate, which left him with one thought.

"This is for me," he said, drawing laughter from the small audience.

Politics has always caused people to get excited and sparked emotional and intellectual battles, he said, and likely always will.

"We look at history from our own perspective and our own time," he said, with fiery debates erupting over relatively minor matters such as colored margarine or liquor by the drink.

"Partisanship is part and parcel of our political system," he said.

But Gutknecht said people can "disagree without being disagreeable," and George McGovern and politicians of his generation seemed to know how to do that better than what is happening now. He said perhaps Facebook and Twitter, which allow people to hurl insults and taunts from a safe distance, are factors.

Gutknecht said he has long been inspired by British politician William Wilberforce, who battled to end slavery, and endured sharp personal attacks. He was able to maintain a sense of humor while finally winning that fight.

At the same time, Wilberforce promoted civility and good manners, he said, and the British have long been known as a civil people.

"It's not necessarily a bad thing to have partisan differences; that's part of our political system," Gutknecht said.

But he said there is no need to demonize your political foes. He then quoted the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a liberal who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988.

Gutknecht said they don't agree on everything, but he admires this quote from Jackson: "If you want to change the world, first you've got to change your neighborhood. If you can't change your neighborhood, at least be a good example."

That's a worthy message for everyone in and out of politics, Gutknecht said.

Both men said the preponderance of money has damaged the system and the country itself. "I think it's a real attack on democracy itself," Sandlin said. "The influence of outside interest groups and the influence of money" are having a negative impact, Gutknecht said. In addition, a negative style of campaigning demonizes people, while trying to reduce the impact and turnout of independents and moderates, in order to win an election by getting the party base to the polls. People "manipulate democracy" through that the process, and the two former congressmen said they know what it's like to be targeted in a race. "Gil and I have both won, we've both lost," Sandlin said. "It's better to win." He said the parties are more concerned about outcomes than issues. They are not concerned about farm issues, Medicare and other vital matters. "What they're interested in is winning the next election," Sandlin said.

Sandlin, 60, said he became "enthralled" with politics as a boy after he read biographies of presidents. The 1964 presidential race also captivated him, with Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson seeking the presidency after taking office upon the assassination of President Kennedy.

In 1972, when McGovern was the Democratic presidential nominee, he was a young precinct worker in Texas and took a great deal of pride when Democrats carried his precinct, although he now realizes the district's demographics had more to do with that than his efforts. Politics can be difficult to master, he admitted, even for those who serve for a long time.

Sandlin quoted former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, who also served as chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan. Baker said there were three things he didn't understand: The Holy Ghost, the Middle East and the House of Representatives.

"Sometimes it's just hard to make sense of it all," Sandlin said.

While the two congressmen agreed that most of the people they met in politics were smart, honest and worked hard, they said the negative tenor of the process seems to have caused great damage. They also critiqued how Congress does its work.

"We had this radical idea that you should show up for work," Sandlin said.

He said between Aug. 3 and Nov. 13, Congress was in session for eight days. Several of those days were "suspension calendar" days, when ball teams are recognized, post offices are named and 100-yearold people honored. With so few hours devoted to work, it's no wonder the farm bill wasn't passed, and other issues stagnated, he said.

"It's not always bad to be slow, but you should do something," Sandlin said.

"My experience has been, these people are trying to do the best that they can," Gutknecht said. "They don't always get it right, but I think they're usually trying."

"I am an optimist," he said. "Most people in politics are essentially optimists. I believe there is sort of an ebb and flow to this partisanship."