From Obama and Baker, a Lament for a Lost Consensus
Posted November 28, 2018 6:41 p.m. EST
HOUSTON — If there ever really was a Washington consensus, it was sitting onstage — a former Democratic president and a former Republican secretary of state sharing laments about the days when the political system seemed to work better.
Barack Obama and James Baker on Tuesday night embodied what has become of that consensus, the decadeslong accord between the two parties in favor of free trade, democratic values and an internationalist foreign policy built on alliances with like-minded countries.
Where once the likes of Obama and Baker ran Washington and the world, now they are left to gather along with other “formers” at conferences and dinners and in the conversation held here at Rice University to discuss where it all went off track. In the age of President Donald Trump, the great disrupter of the way things have always worked, the architects and preservers of the old approach are still struggling to come to terms with how it has frayed.
“A legitimate critique of that consensus, which I consider myself to be part of and still believe in, is that we did not adapt quickly enough to the fact that there were people being left behind and that frustrations were going to flare up and all these changes that were happening were happening really quick,” Obama said.
“The Washington consensus, whatever you want to call it, got a little too comfortable,” Obama added. “Particularly after the Cold War, you had this period of great smugness on the part of America and American elites thinking we got this all figured out.”
Neither Obama nor Baker directly addressed Trump — indeed, the incumbent president was declared by the moderator, historian Jon Meacham, to be the Voldemort of the evening: He who must not be named. But their very presence together was a message of its own.
Baker, who worked for three Republican presidents, ran five presidential campaigns and served as secretary of state at the end of the Cold War, made a point of inviting Obama, the last Democrat to live in the White House, as the featured guest at the gala 25th anniversary of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice.
And Obama, aware the event would come shortly after the midterm elections in which he returned to the partisan fray, made a point of resisting the proposal that he give a straightforward keynote address and insisted instead on sharing the stage with Baker for a discussion between the two of them.
The hundreds gathered in a cathedral tent set up at Rice for the event represented the sort of bipartisan crowd rarely seen in Washington these days. Some cheered any mention of Ronald Reagan; others applauded Obama’s defense of his Affordable Care Act. All of them, it seemed, expressed approval for the notion that the two parties should work together more.
“The fact is that members of Congress are primarily motivated around keeping their seat,” Obama said.
“And it’s getting worse and worse,” Baker agreed.
“I can’t tell you how many times during my presidency I would have former colleagues of mine in the Senate, who are good people and sensible people, say, ‘Mr. President, I’d love to help you but I’d get killed,'” Obama said.
“I totally agree with that, Mr. President,” Baker said. “I think another way to put it is the responsible center in American politics has disappeared.”
The two offered several reasons familiar to these sorts of discussions, including the gerrymandering of congressional districts that make incumbents more afraid of losing to more extreme members of their own parties in primaries than to an opponent from across the aisle.
They also pointed to the fragmentation of the media, which rewards the loudest voices and increasingly takes sides. “Divisiveness sells. Comity doesn’t sell,” Baker said. “If you can get somebody to say something outrageous, that person can get on TV, right?”
He said Fox News is perceived as the “house organ of the Republican Party” and MSNBC the “house organ of the Democratic Party,” adding that “our media today are no longer objective reporters of the fact the way they were when I was there.”
Because of that, Obama complained, Americans do not even start with the same understanding of the facts before debating what the facts mean.
“The biggest challenge we’re going to have over the next 10, 15, 20 years is to return to a civic conversation in which if I say this is a chair, we agree this is a chair,” Obama said. “Now we can disagree on whether it’s a nice chair, whether to replace the chair, whether you want to move it over there. But you can’t say it’s an elephant.”
“I thought we were against Obama-chair,” Meacham quipped, drawing peals of laughter.
Baker recalled that Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat from Massachusetts, disagreed on nearly everything but still managed to collaborate. “They’d fight like hell during the day and at night they would retire somewhere at 5 o’clock, start telling Irish jokes and drinking bourbon,” he said. “And they found ways to cooperate and ways to get the nation’s business done.”
He noted that Reagan worked with Democrats to overhaul the tax code while paying for it — unlike Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut financed by deficits. “It was a true tax reform,” he said. “It didn’t jack up the budget deficit.”
And he defended the value of NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other organizations Trump has denigrated. “These institutions make America better and we ought not to be running them down,” Baker said. Obama used the opportunity to defend his presidency, noting that energy production and stock markets increased on his watch.
“That whole suddenly America’s the biggest oil producer — that was me, people,” he said. As for Wall Street tycoons who complain that he was anti-business, Obama said, “Have you checked where your stocks were when I came to office” and where they were when he left? “What are you complaining about? Just say thank you, please.”
Baker repeated one of his favorite laugh lines when asked his most important accomplishment: “Leaving Washington unindicted.”
Obama played off that. “Not only did I not get indicted, nobody in my administration got indicted,” he said. “And that was the only administration in modern history that can be said about.”