By Jay Conley
With America’s debt crisis in limbo and a government shutdown known as sequestration looming, what will it take to get America’s fiscal affairs in order? More often than not it is conflict that brings people together, which was the basis for “Out of time: An American Crisis,” a political theater exercise Tuesday night at GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium. Frank Sesno, director of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs and a former CNN bureau chief, moderated a 10-member panel of current and former elected officials, journalists and policy analysts, directing them through a series of role-playing exercises that focused on the connections between global, federal and local economies and their effect on Americans.
The event was broadcast live on C-SPAN and the Huffington Post and presented by GW’s Face the Facts USA.org, the Bipartisan Policy Center and America Speaks, with support from No Labels and the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
“We will ask a very basic but important question,” Mr. Sesno told the audience. “Can we as Americans still do great things? It is a tougher question than it seems.”
Questions posed to the audience throughout the evening gauged their confidence in the ability of Congress and the president to work together and whether they would support increases on gasoline taxes and age restrictions on Medicare to help balance the federal budget.
With Republicans and Democrats represented equally on the panel, the exercise highlighted how a crisis or major event, whether it was the Civil War, 9/11 or the Cuban Missile Crisis, is often the catalyst for bringing the two parties together to agree on change.
“Looking back on American history, we’ve had worse problems than this,” said former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. regarding the federal deficit. “It’s become a cliché because everybody has used it, but nobody has said it tonight so I’ll say it. My favorite quote from Winston Churchill: ‘Americans can always be depended upon to do the right thing, after they have exhausted every other possibility.’ We are in the process of exhausting every other possibility,” he said, adding, “We’ll get there eventually.”
Many of the panelists said sequestration seemed inevitable and will be the catalyst to bring the two parties together. Others argued that Washington’s negative tone needs to change in order to spur policy changes.
“What I worry about is the trust deficit,” said former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. “If you look at every institution--business, Congress, sports figures, the church--it doesn’t matter what it is, no one trusts the institutions that operate in this country. Why does that matter? It matters, I think, because for a society to be vibrant and take risks, we not only need to like each other, we need to trust each other.”
Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., who opposes a government shutdown as a catalyst for bringing the political parties together, said he hopes partisanship can be set aside for the good of the country.
“I think the facts are clear that spending has to come down, and revenue has to come up. If we agree upon those facts, and we believe in the American people, we’ll get through this. And we’ll meet our obligation to the next generation of Americans. I’m convinced we’ll do the right thing in the end,” he said.
Other panelists included: journalist, author and blogger Farai Chideya; Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md.; James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic; former Mayor of Tampa Pan Iorio; former Gov. Bill Richardson. D- N.M.; former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.; and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress.
For full video of the event, click here.