Pete Peterson and Our Chaotic National Debates

This column originally appeared on TaxVox.

Each person’s death gives us a moment to pause and ask what lessons their lives offer for us. Here is a lesson from the life of Peter G. (Pete) Peterson, who died on March 20, 2018 at the age of 91: We could reduce our current political chaos by shifting more political resources toward efforts to find sensible, consensus solutions to policy challenges.

Pete Peterson played large on the national stage, in business, politics, and policy. In recent years, he focused much of his energy—and his money—on the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

Pete’s particular concern was government budgets, which is the focus of his foundation. His long-standing push for fiscal prudence has been attacked by some on both left and right, but his concerns rested on two apolitical truths: Debt cannot keep rising faster than income, and the consequences of fiscal policy go beyond budget deficits to affect issues such as how we invest in our children. He sometimes called himself the last of the Rockefeller Republicans, taking on Democrats and Republicans alike.

I worked with Pete as Vice-President of his foundation. The Urban Institute and the Tax Policy Center, where I currently work, receive research grants from his foundation. So, I am not a disinterested party when it comes to either Pete or budget policy. But Pete’s life was an example of how to engage in national debates.

Today, these debates are often dominated by partisanship and what we might call “self-interest” groups. This aspect of politics—and political money– won’t go away, but it’s way out of proportion to how we should be spending our precious resources in engaging policy issues.

Unfortunately, instead of seeking devoting a fair share of resources toward creating a rational common ground, we get sucked into supporting an escalating arms race aimed at opposing those idiots on the other side.

The large national organizations that pursue their own particular agendas–whether the NRA, AARP, Chamber of Commerce, or AFL-CIO–may represent legitimate issues. But by scaring us into believing they are preserving our very lives and liberty, and that we should be offended at any reform that asks us to give up anything, they distort reality, raise more money, and attain even more influence and power.

It is the same with electoral politics. Noncompetitive legislative districts have long elected representatives who serve the median voter in their own party, but not the district as a whole. Interest groups have long figured out how to exploit that system to further divide and conquer.

The media feeds on and amplifies the frenzy. It seeks controversy, which is not the same as seeking truth. Like moths led to a flame, our media has become easily manipulated by those who recognize that controversy creates attention; attention produces fame; and fame enhances power.

So, what does Pete have to do with all of this?  None of what I have noted about the use of power is new, but the way to prevent self-interest groups from dividing us for their own objectives is simple: unite. Stop being so outspent by those groups. Instead of lavishing donations on the arms race of such interest groups and the two major political parties, do what Pete did and focus resources on efforts to create that elusive common ground for rationale dialogue.

Pete had nothing against groups with very specific policy agendas. After all, he funded several. But those groups do not focus on convincing policymakers to shift resources from other special interests for their own benefit. Rather, they argue for budget and trade policy that they believe enhance the greater good. You don’t have to agree with Pete’s priorities to recognize that he was not attempting to promote any political party’s agenda, but to support those who could compromise civilly on common objectives. It is a lesson worth remembering.