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At "Governing across the Divide" roundtable, solutions are elusive

Washington National Cathedral, Donovan Marks, photographer.

By Felicia Sonmez

Could the partisan gridlock in Washington be solved by a pact to quit smoking?

CBS' Bob Schieffer thinks it's at least a start, and he's taking the idea straight to two smokers at the top -- President Obama and House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Schieffer raised the notion at a roundtable on civility in politics held at Washington National Cathedral Tuesday night, where he was playing the role of moderator to two guests from opposite sides of the political spectrum - former George W. Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten and White House senior adviser David Axelrod (who was filling in at the event for former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel following Emanuel's departure from the White House to run for Chicago mayor).

About halfway through grilling his guests on how to restore civility to politics in Washington, Schieffer -- a former smoker and cancer survivor -- proposed an idea of his own: why not get Obama and Boehner to join together and announce that they're quitting smoking?

"Wouldn't that be a good, bipartisan thing to do? To get together at the same place and say, 'You know, we both smoke and we're going to try to stop?'" Schieffer asked the 800 or so guests at the "Governing across the Divide" event, noting that several weeks earlier, he'd proposed the idea to Boehner on "Face the Nation," only to be met with a somewhat terse response.

Axelrod assured Schieffer that he'd run the idea by Obama -- although he cautioned that "the president has had a very good year in that regard, so he's got a long head start on this."

Schieffer's proposal was one of few innovative ideas brought up at the forum Tuesday night (although in Axelrod's and Bolten's defense, the event was held exactly four weeks out from the November midterms -- not exactly prime time for waxing philosophical about the civility of political discourse).

Schieffer kicked off the event by noting that the current rancor in the nation's capitol is the worst he's ever seen it. "I have been in Washington now for 41 years, and I presently believe that we have a meanness that has settled over our politics today that is worse and much deeper than I can recall in my time here in Washington," he said.

As Axelrod and Bolten gave their takes on the causes of that political acrimony, they ticked through a laundry list of familiar themes: A decennial reapportionment process that ensures that the vast majority of incumbents are running in safe districts; a 24-7 cable news cycle propelled by media organizations that are "now dividing up into ideological camps," as Axelrod put it; a "deep-seated disagreement," in Bolten's words, on certain hot-button-issues that leaves the minority party with no other option but obstructionism.

For all the talk of viewing politics from 35,000 feet, both Axelrod and Bolten (who now serves as a professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School) were very much in campaign mode. Axelrod in particular took aim at some familiar campaign-trail targets Tuesday night, including Fox News Channel and the influence of outside groups this cycle.

"Fox has basically become an outlet for one party and one point of view," Axelrod said at one point. He charged that the network "created a full media tempest" with its coverage of the Shirley Sherrod controversy, although he conceded that the administration also "reacted, I think, too quickly to it."

Bolten defended the cable giant. "We certainly inside the White House felt that Fox was relatively fair and balanced and that the entire rest of the media was biased against us," he said.

Later, Axelrod also suggested that some of the coverage - or those the networks are covering - has crossed the line into the uncivil.

"We shouldn't have disagreements over birth certificates," Axelrod said. "We shouldn't have disagreements over these wacky personal allegations."

On the issue of campaign spending, Axelrod took aim at a North Carolina-based group called the Committee for Truth in Politics, which he said has spent $1 million to defeat Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.

"Where's the million dollars coming from? No one will say," Axelrod said, echoing a similar argument from Obama's recent stump speeches.

While Bolten and Axelrod had plenty of ideas for who is to blame for the current state of discourse, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who addressed the crowd for about half an hour, had a perhaps more straightforward approach: elect more Republicans.

"I would suggest to you that divided government and a more evenly split Senate is much more conducive to bipartisanship than are the super-majorities and one-party control of the executive and legislature that are part of our current political landscape," Collins said.

Collins didn't accuse the president per se of extreme partisanship; rather, she argued that divided government could actually help Obama fight against the more extreme elements of his party.

"I would argue that it would've been a lot easier for President Obama to resist the hard left of his party if he could say that he has to pursue legislation acceptable to a Republican House or Senate, or better yet from my perspective, both," Collins said.

Collins called out - although not by name - those members of Congress who are "campaigning against incumbent senators in their own caucus by endorsing their primary opponents." She also singled out Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) (although again not by name) for taking part in "decidedly uncivil acts designed not to reveal truth but simply to give offense."

Ultimately, Collins said, Washington won't change unless voters make it change.

"It is not likely to change until those outside Washington demand it," she told the crowd.

At another point in the evening, Schieffer told a story of how he had dealt with incivility firsthand.

Recently, he said, a Democratic leader and Republican leader appeared on his show. A staffer for each one called up and asked if their boss could have a "private waiting room" since he didn't get along with the other party's leader.

Schieffer's response: "He's just going to have to suck it up."

By Felicia Sonmez  | October 6, 2010; 10:55 AM ET
Categories:  White House  
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