Bill Clinton On Pragmatism (And Guns) In The Obama Era

As former President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I attended a session two weeks ago at their Winter Meeting here in Washington, DC, where an old law school classmate of mine - former President Bill Clinton - was invited to speak.

In an extemporaneous speech, President Clinton offered the audience his analysis of the changes that have rocked America's cultural, economic and political landscape over recent years, and put them in the context of the last two generations. He argued that understanding these changes helps explain not only the rise of President Obama and his historic election to the White House, but also the new "political culture" of today and the generation to come.

Interestingly, President Clinton also discussed gun violence prevention policy in this context in a way that I thought was instructive. The President said:

...We are now poised, I think, to spend a generation operating as a nation the way you operate in your cities on your best days. That does not mean the Democrats will win all the elections - if the Republicans reform themselves and develop a 21st century version of the second great Republican President's - Theodore Roosevelt's - philosophy, so that we have... a dueling communitarianism. That is, "my way of bringing us together is better than your way of bringing us together." One can be a little to the right of center, one can be a little to the left of center. But we will not go forward anymore, I don't think, with the kind of politics of division and destruction that drug us down for too long.

That's essentially what is different [about today's new political culture], and what creates this great moment of opportunity - not just to bring the economy back, but to pass comprehensive health care reform, to be a renewed force of peace around the world - to do a lot of things that make sense - and to have conversations with people, instead of screaming matches over things like what former Mayor Helmke works on so much, over what is the best way to keep the American people safe. Nobody wants to repeal the Second Amendment, and nobody wants to keep you out of the deer woods, but wouldn't it be nice if your children didn't have to worry about being mowed down by an assault weapon when they turn the corner?

A little later, President Clinton said:

...Again, I will say this, it's not that the country has moved way left. That is not what has happened.... It's not a leftward movement. It's a forward, communitarian movement. Shared opportunities. Shared responsibilities. Shared values, including the most important of all: "Our differences are really interesting, and they make life in America much more interesting, but our common humanity matters more." Those are the things that have driven us to this point....

I share much of President Clinton's analysis, as well as his belief that the country is entering a time where voters - frustrated with "divide-and-conquer" tactics - are asking candidates "how" they plan to do what they promise and telling elected officials to solve real problems. As someone who ran a city for 12 years, I know from experience that this pragmatic approach cuts across ideological and partisan lines and gathers support across the political spectrum.

Guns offer an opportunity to exercise pragmatism in this new political environment. Polling for the Brady Campaign shows - and other public opinion surveys help confirm - the popularity of key gun violence prevention policies that cut across sectional, racial, gender, ideological and partisan divisions. People of goodwill may disagree on gun policy at the margins, but over 80% of Americans do agree that we should require Brady criminal background checks for every gun purchase, and about two-thirds favor restricting access to military-style assault weapons.

These and other proposals are popular, common sense ways to help keep guns away from dangerous people while respecting the Supreme Court's reading of the Second Amendment. They also respect "our common humanity" rather than cater to the interests of a few who want access to firearms with few or no restrictions at all, allowing the easy access to guns that puts everyone at risk.

In this context, President Clinton's prediction about "dueling communitarianism" could present itself not only through President Obama's actions from the White House, but also through someone like Sen. John McCain, who defines his politics in the mold of President Theodore Roosevelt.

For example, Sen. McCain might once more propose legislation to close the gun show loophole, while reaching across the aisle to someone like newly-appointed New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and ask her to be a co-sponsor. Solving a problem by working with members of the opposing party has been a hallmark of Sen. McCain's service in the Senate. Using that reputation to require background checks for all gun sales at gun shows would allow Sen. Gillibrand to begin to represent all New Yorkers on the gun issue. In this way, common sense gun policy can help build a bridge to moderate voters across the ideological spectrum, while allowing both parties to stake a claim as to whose "way of bringing the country together" is better.

Surprisingly, this new political culture could see similar competition within the Republican Party, as well. Last Friday, the Republican National Committee chose Michael Steele as Chair of the RNC, and showed that guns weren't a wedge issue even in an intramural Republican election. At a candidate's debate at the National Press Club last month (which I attended), while the other candidates fell over themselves to describe their gun collections and shooting prowess, Steele stated distinctly and without qualification, that he owns no guns. This was on top of statements Steele made in 2006 about his stance on restricting access to assault weapons that inflamed the gun community. Meanwhile, Ken Blackwell, a member of the National Rifle Association Board of Directors, came in last place every ballot he appeared on. If the gun issue didn't act as a wedge issue to divide voters in an RNC election, no wonder it failed to divide voters nationwide last November.

That's a big change. And if we want our elected officials to solve problems instead of just attack their opponents, that's change for the better.

(Note to readers: This entry, along with past entries, has been co-posted on and the Huffington Post.)