First, Obama the teacher must show us just how bad things have become. He should draw his lesson from the work of the most important scholars of Congress today, Norm Ornstein and Bruce Mann, whose latest book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, details the incredibly depressing story of just how broken the legislature is.
And in teaching that story, he needs precisely Mann and Ornstein’s courage, to assign responsibility where responsibility lies. It is the Republicans who have broken the system our Framers gave us, by embracing a sort of militant minority-ism that might work with parliaments but only destroys the capacity of constitutional democracies with separation of powers to function. Obama must rally America to the idea that such intransigence is wrong. That the permanent war of Washington is wrong. And that Congress must learn to work together to address the problems the nation demands be solved. That means to reverse the norms that Newt Gingrich initiated, so as to get Congress to work again. Let members han out with the enemy — i.e., members from the other party. Let them have weekend paintball battles. But demand that they learn how to listen and compromise — recognizing that no extreme defines America, and that they work for America.
Second, Obama the Chicago pol must execute a strategy that enforces this lesson — through discipline and electoral punishment if necessary. He should call on the Senate leadership to punish the militant minority, by changing the filibuster rule to at least restore the requirement that the opposition show up, stand up, and speak up if they want to stop the government from acting. Let “efficiency” be the norm for how the government gets things done, rather than the Senate’s practice of enabling a minority to stop the government from doing anything. Here again, Republicans have abused an ancient tradition. That abuse should not be ignored.
And, likewise, in 2014: Let the enforcer identify those members of Congress who are behaving badly, and let him campaign against them directly. With respect, and dignity, on the merits, and with patience. But let no one in Congress believe that bad behavior will be ignored.
Finally, Obama the community organizer must begin a conversation with Americans of every political stripe to devise a strategy for ending the corrupting influence of money in American politics. Let him demand that Congress give him the means to convene a series of “citizen conventions” that would address the problems of Congress and propose changes all Americans might agree upon. These conventions should not be “town halls” or photo-ops for politicians. They should instead be a serious effort to elicit the views of ordinary Americans about how this corruption should end. Draft 500 citizens, randomly selected, for each convention as a kind of civic jury, pay them enough, protect their jobs, and then give them both the information they need to understand the problem and the opportunity to deliberate about it. And through a series of these conversations, let Obama then organize a strategy he can take to the American people in 2014 for changing the way Washington works. We are too cynical to believe that Washington can fix itself, and we are too polarized to follow the reforms proposed by any one side. But we might be willing to listen to people like us — if we could be convinced they fairly represented us, and they knew enough to understand how this corruption might be solved.