With President Barack Obama and Congress deadlocked over fixes for the ailing economy, Bill Clinton and a few other veteran pols are offering their own two bits of advice.
The silver-haired, silver-tongued former Democratic president returned to his alma mater Georgetown University last week to riff with former advisers on his era of budget surpluses, and a bipartisan group led by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) formed a commission to address the housing crisis.
Both groups grappled with a similar challenge that has stymied major steps to boost employment or sort through the still-smoldering wreckage of the housing meltdown — a breakdown in relations between the Democratic White House and the Republican-controlled House.
While Obama has emphasized “winning the future” in his speeches, Clinton talked about the importance of Democrats and Republicans sharing the future.
“All that matters when you finish this,” Clinton said, “is whether people are better off when you quit than when you started, whether the kids have a better future and whether things are coming together or being torn apart. The rest of this will all seem like a passing irritant. And I’m old enough now to know that the intelligent people in both parties in Congress have to know that.”
The Clinton administration hit an infamous impasse with congressional Republicans 16 years ago when budget wrangling forced a government shutdown.
At Georgetown on Friday, Gene Sperling, who was director of the National Economic Council for Clinton and now for Obama, said the shutdown eventually led to cooperation because GOP leaders did not want to be seen as the problem.
“The public responded by essentially punishing the party they thought was most recalcitrant,” Sperling said. “What was at least nice about the time then was that people seemed to actually care about public opinion.”
Some members of Congress now consider themselves “immune” to public opinion, he continued, adding the best way to move forward is for leaders of both parties and both chambers to reach an agreement.
“It doesn’t always work, as you saw over the summer” with the debt ceiling debate, Sperling said. “But it’s the only chance you have.”
Separately, the Bipartisan Policy Center announced a week ago the formation of a commission to address the persistent housing crisis that threatens millions of homeowners with foreclosure and has been an albatross for job creation.
Joining Mitchell as co-chairmen of the panel are former Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri and two former secretaries of Housing and Urban Development — Democrat Henry Cisneros and Republican Mel Martinez.
The goal of the commission is to create a realistic plan over the next year for resolving the problem that respects partisan differences yet builds toward a consensus.
Bond called balancing all the competing forces a “tough stump to jump.” But reconciling political differences is just one step to a conversation that has yet to occur.
Any fix to housing, which Clinton has called critical for bringing back employment, means a plan that saddles either the banks, homeowners or the government with billions of dollars in new losses.
Asked how the commission would deal with that thorny problem, Mitchell answered with diplomatic brevity.
“Carefully,” he said.
Wall Street POLITICO is a weekly column looking at issues that drive business.
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