Can Washington D.C. Ever Be Fixed?

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - Any elementary student can tell you that Washington is the seat of power in American politics.  It is the city where lawmakers and statesmen set out to do the people's work.

However, judging from oft used phrases like "Washington is broken" or "same old-Washington politics," it also sounds like a place in desperate need of repair on both sides of the partisan aisle.

"I came to work for the Senate in the 1970s and very rarely was there ever a party line vote on any issue," says Donald Ritchie, reflecting on his tenure with the U.S. Senate Historical Office.

"Almost every issue was a bipartisan."

But times have changed.

"Today, most votes in the Senate tend to be along party lines," said Ritchie.

Critics say partisanship is fine, but the current climate has become bitterly polarized.

"We believe in partisanship or there wouldn't be two parties," says conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas. "But, partisanship has devolved into polarization, and that is what is poison."

Bob Beckel, a veteran Democratic strategist, agrees.

"We were throwing fuel on the fire, too. But that was back when polarization was sort of outside the mainstream of American politics," Beckel said. "Now, it's right in the middle of American politics. It controls the microphone of American politics."

Political Odd Couple

On the surface, it might seem like a strange pairing: Beckel and Thomas. The two used to be on opposing sides.

But now they're quintessential political odd couple, declaring the same message about how today's partisan war is "destroying America."

Taking their message to audiences across the country, they say the country can no longer afford politics as usual.

"People of good will of whatever party of persuasion can sit down and build a relationship, and out of a personal relationship, can come a lot of positive things," Thomas says. 

That's exactly how it happened for these two.

Relationship Before Politics

The two became friends while traveling in the same commentary circles. Their relationship changed forever when Beckel, a recovering alcoholic, hit his lowest point.

"I had some difficult times five years ago," he recalled. "I wasn't drinking, but one of the first people to come to help me was Cal - and in the process, led me to faith. He was a vessel for me."

Proudly looking on as Beckel finished retelling his story, Thomas chimed in.

"Bob likes to say he became interested in the things of Christ and the Word of God because I loved him and cared for him," Thomas said. "I was the first one there when he was at the bottom. He was suicidal. He was an alcoholic - all these other things."

"I reached out to him in love not to convert him to my point of view. Not to get him to sign up as a Republican. Not to get him to believe what I believe. But to introduce him to Jesus Christ," Thomas said.

Beckel believes that approach changed his life, his sobriety, and caused him to question some of his previously held beliefs.

A Shift in Perspective

"When I came to faith, it became very difficult for me to be pro-choice," Beckel said. "In fact, I have been on pro-choice committees most all of my political career."

But the two of them decided to tackle the issue and see if they could find common ground. They came up with an informational approach that would require women considering an abortion be shown a sonogram - a practice they say would fully inform women, cut down abortions, and uphold the principle of choice.

"To a lot of people on the left, it's a fundamental choice issue," Beckel said. "The question is how do we keep more children alive?"

They cite statistics that show more than 90 percent of women who view sonograms choose not to go through the procedure.

"What more could you hope for than that in this climate?" Beckel said.

Common Ground Politics

According to polls, Americans want more of this type of agreement.  Bipartisanship can happen in Washington.

In February, Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly agreed to pump money into the economy by mailing rebate checks to millions of taxpayers. They did it record time.

Beckel and Thomas believe voters are ready for more common ground approaches in 2008, though they admit there will still be differences of opinions.

Neither has changed their party affiliation. Beckel says he still identifies himself as a proud card-carrying liberal. To that, Thomas quickly chimes in with a smirk, "I'm still right!"

But with faith as a common denominator, this unlikely duo says they're living proof that polar opposites can be civil, perhaps find common ground, and maybe even become friends along the way.

*Original broadcast May 30, 2008.

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