NORTH FULTON, Ga. – It was a relaxed, fit and philosophical former Gov. Sonny Perdue who spoke Sept. 27 with surprising candidness at the Young Professionals Breakfast at the Standard Club in Alpharetta about political gridlock and what could be done about it.
Now that Perdue is out of politics and happily engaged in the private sector again, he is freer to say what he thinks without a political filter on just how he says it.
He began by praising the mostly under 40 group who came to hear him speak by saying good communities are built by good leaders.
“You young professionals are in the season of life where you can begin to make a difference in your community,” Perdue said.
But the trouble on the political scene today is a lack of leadership.
“What we have today are politicians who are followers, not leaders,” he said.
They are following the voters, because their No. 1 goal in office is to be re-elected. And to get re-elected, they need to be sure they provide no ammunition to any potential challenger from the same party.
The reason, he said, could be blamed on years of reapportionment. The political parties are more interested in carving out “safe” districts for the leaders in power that follow along party lines.
“What we see now are elections that have candidates on the far left and far right. Most of the furor is in the primaries. You rarely see a hotly contested race between candidates of the two parties,” Perdue said. “So they must be more responsible to the extremes of their parties than to any moderates.”
Candidates – whether conservative or liberal – are forced to paint themselves into doctrinaire positions from which they dare not stray – especially in any effort to make compromises with the other party.
Over the years, the states have created congressional districts that were honed to be more “pure” for one party. Perdue calls it the politics of polarization. There are no moderates to appeal to at home for support. So members of Congress instead walk resolutely in lockstep toward dysfunction and accomplish nothing. The primaries now send candidates who are mostly the zealots of the left and right.
“The system favors the candidates who are the most to far left or right. That is why we have had such a do-nothing Congress this year. And this continues to threaten us as a nation,” he said. “The Founding Fathers created this nation to bring us together.”
The politics of impasse is what threatens us as a nation today, he said.
“We have created a situation that makes it very difficult to make decisions,” he said. “No one is allowed to talk to the other side and make the compromises that will move us along.”
Perdue favors reapportionment that creates districts of more or less equal amounts of Democrats and Republicans. That would create more of a balanced slate of candidates who need to please more than just one more narrowly defined group.
And we are running out of time, he said. A $16 trillion deficit demands action, and simply making cuts in the current budget will not solve it.
Although he did not say the word taxes, Perdue said the tough choices still need to be made and the federal government has lived too long on deficit spending.
Politicians in Washington are not bound to produce balanced budgets as most states including Georgia are bound. Fiefdoms of power are created in various areas – agriculture, defense, health, energy and the like – which require budgets to feed them.
This is due in no small measure to the federal government’s absorption of oversight of areas that were originally left to the states, Perdue said.
He pointed out that the 10th Amendment to the Constitution states all powers not expressly given to the federal government were to fall to the states. But politicians created funding mechanisms in education for example, that have made local systems reliant on federal funding and thus answerable to federal control.
It’s the carrot and stick approach, he said.
“But as time goes on, the carrots get smaller and the stick gets bigger,” he said.
Now we see why we have professional politicians who are so dedicated to re-election they are willing to let the status quo persist rather than risk the stain of failure or the taint of cooperation. They can defend “sticking to their guns” more easily than compromise.
So how do you fix it? Perdue has a theory for that too.
Washington is open for business all year. We have created a system of career politicians who are always in session (with generous recesses).
“I think we should remember what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Elected office was a form of community service, where you served your time and then left. Now, I am not advocate of term limits. But you should shorten the time in Washington to get the job done and go home,” he said.
Make Congress wrap up its business in two to three months the way the states do. Put a time limit on Washington, send them back home to make a living and face the constituents, Perdue said.