Compromising position: On Joe Straus, Barack Obama and the lost art of the possible

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(AP photo by Eric Gay)

 

Good morning Austin:

It was only a coincidence of timing that Joe Straus accepted his election for a fifth term as speaker of the House on the same day that President Barack Obama, with only ten days left in his second term, delivered his farewell address in Chicago.

But the animating spirit of the two speeches by the Republican speaker of the Texas House and the departing Democratic president of the United States could not have been more in concert with one another, or more out of sync with the prevailing political zeitgeist in the Age of Twitter.

It was uncanny.

From Straus:

Throughout this session, our shared principles will be tested. And so will the goodwill that fills this chamber today.

But Texans are watching … and we have an opportunity: We can show that there’s still a place for thoughtful and inclusive leadership. We can show that elected officials still know how to solve problems. And we can show that, when necessary, principled leaders still have the courage to compromise.

Compromise has become a dirty word in politics. But in reality, it’s how we find common ground to achieve the common good. And it’s a good word in this House.

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There is a disconnect between the way we talk about politics in this country and the way that most Texans treat each other. The corrosive cynicism that dominates the public discussion of politics does not reflect the character of our people.

The Texans we represent are kind, and they are decent, and they are charitable. They deliver meals to the hungry, comfort the sick, and look after their neighbors.

Our constituents don’t expect us to agree on every issue. They want us to defend our core beliefs. But they also want solutions. They want us to conduct ourselves with civility and respect: respect for each other, and respect for the process of governing.

That’s what Texans do. If you walk into a factory or a restaurant or a hospital, you will find citizens of different races, religions and political beliefs working together every day. 

And that’s what Texans should expect of us.  So let’s follow their example. Let’s govern with the same sense of goodness — the same humanity and decency — that we so clearly recognize in the people we represent.

(Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

(Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

 

And here was president Obama last night in Chicago:

THE PRESIDENT: In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy. 

AUDIENCE:  Nooo —

THE PRESIDENT:  No, no, no, no, no — the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected President to the next.  I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.  Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.

I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.  Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.

We have what we need to do so.  We have everything we need to meet those challenges.  After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth.  Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours.  But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works.  Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now. 

That’s what I want to focus on tonight:  The state of our democracy.  Understand, democracy does not require uniformity.  Our founders argued.  They quarreled.  Eventually they compromised.  They expected us to do the same.  But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity -– the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.

For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.  The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste — all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.  And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.

And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy.  But politics is a battle of ideas.  That’s how our democracy was designed.  In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them.  But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter — then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.  Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy:  Citizen.   Citizen. 

So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.  Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.

Straus was nominated for speaker by state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall.

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Years from now when our time is done, history will not judge us on how many bills we passed, how many awards we received, and certainly not on what grade we received on a scorecard. Instead, history will judge us on whether or not together we did the necessary work, whether together we advanced policies that protected and strengthened this state, and whether or not together we had the courage to do the right thing for Texas, even when it wasn’t popular.

Members, I submit to you that if we want to continue to build on the successes that we have enjoyed under Speaker Straus’ leadership, we need to recommit ourselves to doing the necessary work and to governing together. That’s what the people who send us here expect from us.

There were three seconding speeches.

The second of these was made by state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass.

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Joe Straus is a Republican and a conservative. As a Democrat, I sometimes disagree with him on policy. As a West Texan, I know that character matters. Joe Straus is a man of great character, and the people of Texas are blessed to have him at the helm of this ship.

In my time here, I have seen the speaker incorporate the talents and expertise of every member. He leverages our skills, our personal experiences, and commitment to serve, allowing for meaningful vetting of legislation. This makes the House special. It makes it work. It empowers this chamber and, by extension, the people who chose us to produce the best public policy for all Texans.

The third of the seconding speeches was delivered by Linda Koop, R-Dallas.

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It is a great honor to second the nomination of Joe Straus as speaker. Rare is the leader who does not seek to impose his will, who realizes his power is rooted in his ability to forge alliances and find common ground. Joe Straus is such a leader.

In this house, every voice is heard and every district is represented. Ideas rise and fall on their merit. Members argue their perspectives with passion but also with civility and respect. That is the tone Joe Straus sets for this house—one of respectful leadership.

I have been fortunate to have served with many leaders, including four mayors in my home community. I see Joe as unique. He welcomes vigorous debate. He is confident enough in his own views to allow others to express their views. He leads with an invisible hand, quietly guiding this house in the right direction, solving the great challenges of our time without worrying about who gets the credit.

But most remarkable, for its sheer intimacy, was the first seconding speech, from Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands.

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Here it is in its entirety.

Mr. Secretary, fellow members, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is a singular honor for me to address such a group on such an auspicious occasion. With my short tenure as a legislator, I trust that my words will ring true to all in attendance and especially to our freshmen.

As many of you know, I am a member of a group—the gang of 19—who voted against the nomination of Joe Straus as the speaker of the House in the last session, the 84th Session. I campaigned in my district according to the wishes of a variety of groups—good people with whom for the most part I am in full agreement with their political stance—who encouraged me to stand against the nomination of our speaker last session.

It should be noted, because I’m a pastor and believe in the wisdom of the scriptures that the proverbs teach, that there are two sides to every story. The man that listens to one side of the story is a fool. And so according to the dictates of my conscience, I chose to visit the speaker before the 84th Session and bring up the upcoming vote between the speaker and his challenger before the vote was taken.

As I inquired about the upcoming debate, I was met with graciousness by the speaker and his staff. I gave the speaker every opportunity to speak against his opponent and hear his position, but never did I hear one word of disparagement or anger against the challenger. I was invited with my bride, Kim, to the freshmen orientation banquet where I spent time with the speaker and his wife. I listened as he told me about his life, his family, and the opportunity that was before me as a legislator. I heard nothing but gracious, positive words. Having been in the car business—I was a partner in a dealership and managed a Lexus store, all combined almost 26 years—I had learned to question everything I was told. Yet I saw no guile in the speaker.

Needless to say, I became very conflicted as to how I would vote the next day.

True to my word, I voted in favor of the speaker’s opponent. Yet I remained conflicted.

For almost two months, I found myself on an island between those who supported the speaker and those who stood in opposition.

During that time, the freshness of Biblical truth was a guiding light to me as I watched and listened to the operations of the House. I watched the speaker’s demeanor. I saw him demonstrate respect, honor, and statesmanship. I listened to my colleagues as they spoke about the character of our speaker and as I watched many archived videos of past sessions. I heard the words respect, fair, balanced, and leadership again and again as words that endorsed the nominations of Joe Straus from past sessions.

Please understand that I do not take this lightly, as in this House we have a combination of brilliance and genius—doctors and attorneys and wildly successful entrepreneurs from Harvard, Tulane, UT, Tech, and our beloved A&M—that I have never seen in all my years. In a variety of settings, I observed the speaker and his interaction with his bride, Julie. Their kindness and humility, and their remembrance of names and birthdays and holidays is amazing.

As the voting on bills began, I watched individuals much younger than him in age attack him and, with relentless argument, challenge his authority. The words of scripture rang out, as Paul told Timothy in the New Testament, “do not rebuke an older man sharply” while the speaker remained calm and under total self-control.

I watched day after day the management of a group of no less than 145 people whom I have come to love: my colleagues who have made sacrifices only those who have had the experience can understand, my fellow legislators who are part of a sacred fraternity who walk these halls of power with confidence and self-reliance—that some could characterize as a group of swashbuckling pirates but I see as men and women of strength, genius, and honor, who know what they believe and will never back down for the benefit of the people they represent—men and women chosen by God through our republican form of government, that is a wonder to not just other states but to the entire world.

Who can manage such a group? Who has been given such authority by God? All the words inscribed on the wall behind me say, “In God We Trust.” Yet daily I saw the speaker walk on the chamber floor and by his very presence bring a spirit of calm to an otherwise potentially chaotic environment.

As I observed the attitudes of the committee chairs, I noticed that when I maintained an attitude of respect and an attitude of teachability, when I approached them with questions on how I could get things done—sometimes in desperation as I thought about the expectations of the constituents I represent—to a person, they were gracious and accommodating and always willing to help me. How do you explain this?

Management is everything. Our speaker, Joe Straus, has created an environment by his example where gifted leaders are free to work on behalf of our body of legislators and the people they represent to produce what some have said about the last session was the most productive and significant legislature in the history of our great state.

Mr. Speaker, I have much more to say, but as you said, “Mark, I know you’re a preacher, so keep it short.” So in the interest of time, thank you for your guidance and your leadership, and for allowing all of us to know your incredible wife, Julie, and how she nurtures and loves us and our wives, the legislative ladies.

Mr. Secretary, it is with great honor that I, as a student of our craft, as a pastor, as a husband and father, and as a citizen and legislator of the great State of Texas, second the motion to make Representative Joe Straus of Bexar the speaker of the House of Representatives of the 85th Legislature. God bless you, Joe and Julie Straus. God bless all of my colleagues, family, and friends, and God bless the great State of Texas.

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One might suppose that seconding the nomination of a man who was re-elected speaker by a unanimous 150-0 vote might be the safest political course one could possibly take.

But one would be wrong.

 

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A few hours later, even as President Obama was pleading with America, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life,” Twitter was ablaze with gleeful acrimony over the most salacious but unsubstantiated claims about President-elect Donald Trump Trump yet, and the next president was left to defend his character, a few characters at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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