Representative Tom Davis on the Partisan Divide and the role of Political Moderates

 /  Jan. 20, 2019, 4:28 p.m.

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Tom Davis is a former Republican Representative from Virginia’s 11th Congressional District. He served on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for twelve years prior to his election to the US House of Representatives in 1994. In his tenure as a congressman, Davis served as chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform and the committee tasked with investigating the federal government response to Hurricane Katrina. He now works for Deloitte Consulting, having resigned from Congress in 2008. Congressman Davis sat down with the Gate to discuss bipartisanship, political moderates, and the future of politics. 

The Gate: You've done a lot of work around the issue of partisanship. The gulf between our parties seems to be widening. Could you talk about what you see as the contributing factors? 

Tom Davis: In 2016, the Republicans’ biggest fear was that Trump would walk off with half their base and run as an independent. Hillary [Clinton]'s biggest fear was that [Bernie] Sanders would walk off and run as an independent. Ordinarily, if you nominate Trump, Clinton moves over to the center and soaks up everything else: you win a big win. But she was chasing Sander’s race, so the middle was gone.

There are three uniquely American characteristics that exacerbate this. One is the advent of what I call single party districts. You know how every election within ten miles of here is going to turn out. You have single party districts for three quarters of the House. The only race that counts is the primary: November is just a constitutional formality. Members hew their time, their attention and their voting records to their primary voters. Primary voters are a thin ideological slice of the pie. We have an old saying in politics that liberals and conservatives have passion, but moderates have lives. The end result is the passionate tend to dominate and they don't reward compromise. They punish compromise. If you want to meld this stuff together, you got to understand the other person's perspective. 

The other part of the problem is the way that people receive their information now is very bifurcated. In the old days, everybody got the same information. You had CBS, NBC, ABC. Their reputations went with everything they put out. This was vetted, factual news. 

In 1986, the Federal Communications did away with something called the Fairness Doctrine and all of a sudden we don't have to show both sides anymore. Cable TV twenty years later replicated this: you have Fox News and MSNBC. People just tune in and get their own world view validated. 

The third thing is the money in politics. Money used to go to the candidates and the parties. John McCain and [Russ] Feingold came around with the view that money was corrupting the system. They decided to eliminate the parties and the candidates from taking this soft money, which is corporate money and large individual contributions. A few of us had the guts to oppose it. That money has migrated from the parties, which have been a centering force in American politics because they have to compete for the center to win. It moved into the wings and they play the primary. The money is now on the side of these super PACs, ideological PACs which are running all of these third party ads and candidates. 

If the districts have gone out to the wings, if the way people receive news has gone from factual news out to here, and if the money's gone from the center, what did you expect?

It’s the byproduct of these factors. 

Gate: How are single issue voters contributing to this divide? 

TD: Interest groups exist to advance their interests. Parties exist to win elections. And again, interest groups adopt parties based on who is going to best advance their interest. If you want to be 50 percent, which is what it takes to win most of the time, you're in bed with some people that you may not feel that good about all the time. But it advances the issue. They're moving back and forth. They’re not static: they are constantly mutating.

Gate: The Democrats are traditionally seen as the party of young people, immigrants, and people of color, with a platform to reflect that. However, you have previously mentioned that you observe many of those values as being held within the ideology of the Republican party. Could you speak a little about that? 

TD: Whenever I would go in and drop off the dry cleaning, [the owner’s] kids were there working on Saturdays. One went to Princeton, one went to West Point. One became a doctor, one became a lawyer. What an American story. The problem for Republicans is that they have a good argument in terms of some of these people that are just coming in here on an unregulated basis. There should be some action taken. But the rhetoric often gets over the top to appeal to different groups. Democrats play off this, you get the scare stuff, and they just pushed the mute button on Republicans. These people are entrepreneurial. They're the immigrant story. But they got shoved out because of 9/11 and the Patriot Act. Bush got 80 percent of the Muslim vote in 2000 and in 2004 he got 20 percent. The Democrats know how to play this like a fiddle.

Gate: With issues like abortion and gun control, almost like these timeless conversations that we have in politics, do you think there is room for a moderate perspective? 

TD: Well, sure there is room for a moderate perspective but people in politics like to draw a hard line. You want to get through a Republican primary. I'm a Republican but not on every issue. And I fortunately had a district court in which I could get away with that. I wasn't held accountable at every single issue. Obviously I'm hardly lock-step Republican. Look at my issue with guns. With those kind of issues, I was more centered. But on the economic stuff, I was very conservative, and my constituents say they were fine with it. 

Gate: It seems like local politics are more of a productive breeding ground for moderate politicians. Would you agree?

TD: In local politics, I had a ten-member board. You couldn’t kick anybody out because you might need them for the next vote. Secondly, local government is not an ideological fight. You have to fill the potholes, you have to get kids to school. It’s much more practical. When we had a problem, we’d get people involved around a table and ask what we were going to do. In Congress, even if we do that, by the time we have an agreement and I’m back in my office, Rachel Maddow and Hannity are picking it apart because it’s a part of their business plan. 

Gate: Do you have any advice for young people and students who are getting involved in politics? 

TD: I hope that they would learn to think for themselves and stay away from groupthink. We all have high values. I may not vote the same way they do, but when my county board took the gay newspapers out of the library, I put them back in. When everybody's talking about the homeless, I opened up the first shelter for the homeless in Fairfax. They talked about affordable housing, and I wrote the statewide ordinance for the affordable dwelling unit ordinance to kick in as incentives and took action on it. 

We are people-oriented. We care about people. We just don't always see the same big government solutions as the Democrats. They just want to throw dollars at it. If compassion and money could solve our problems, we would have solved them a long time ago. Public policy is complicated. It's complicated. Not only you get the fraud that moves out of this, you give people something for nothing. I mean, you've got to think this stuff through. I'm just more conservative on that stuff to other people, but I had the experience of running one of the largest county budgets in the country.

It's just very disappointing to me what we're getting out of government now, which is very little. Congress is a basically a broken branch. The president's party becomes an appendage to the president. I don't think either party is wearing a white hat here. I think we kind of had to fool ourselves when we started saying we're right and they're wrong. Take a hard look. Not everybody in America is wrong. Not everybody's right.

Indi Khera


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