I recently spoke with U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania about impeachment, the hope of bipartisanship and the future of the Republican Party and the country.
Toomey is a thoughtful and principled guy who, like Rob Portman of Ohio, is choosing to leave the Senate of his own accord.
In Toomey's case there was a self-imposed term limit. But with both of these men, though they are generally as upbeat as they are upright, I see frustration, and more than a little bit of despair.
Toomey told me that President Joe Biden talks unity but seems to be, so far, governing from the left, seeking Democratic votes only. Moderate Republicans, not including Toomey but including Portman, offered a more modest COVID-19 relief bill than the Democrats want ($600 billion vs. $1.9 trillion), and the president decided to bypass them.
Toomey thinks there is no real justification behind either bailout. I think he's right.
Portman points out that Congress just passed a $900 billion relief bill, and most of the money has yet to be subject to a clear goal or sound accounting.
So you have a couple of capable senators, the kind you want to stay in the Congress, and stick with the Republican Party, giving up.
John F. Kennedy used to say, "We can do better."
Barack Obama used to say, "Better is still better."
Politics is the art of finding "proximate solutions to insoluble problems" (Reinhold Niebuhr).
What happens when our leaders lose hope that we can do better?
It's not hard to see how we got here.
The Democrats give every evidence of overreaching — of misreading their moment.
So they could very well lose the House in 2022. Most Americans are not woke and don't want to be. The blogosphere and cancel culture are not the country. Thank God.
But traditional Republicans have lost the war for control of the GOP. It is no longer the party that favors originalist judges, free markets, limited government and fiscal responsibility. It is the party of anger, resentment and grievance — the Trump party. And that party thumbs its nose at law, custom and institutions, as well as at quiet doers like Toomey and Portman.
The fringe controls both parties. So there can be no progress, which is possible only with compromise.
We seem to be doomed to a cycle of reaction, executive actions and reversals of the previous president, and impeachments.
And real legislators are being replaced by people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is just fine with no committee assignment, thanks. Why work when you can spend your time in Congress tweeting, ranting and posturing?
If Democrats really wanted to punish her they would have given her more committee work, not less.
We need to break the fringe stranglehold on at least one of the parties.
Or we need a new party.
Maybe, instead of toying with blocking Trump from running for office again, which is surely undemocratic, even if it is constitutional, we need Republican officeholders to say they will not support a GOP ticket in 2024 with Trump at the top.
Many Democrats took such a pledge regarding George Wallace in 1972 and 1976, when he seemed to have a real chance at winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
The founders were so right about faction. A strong party system puts the country in the back seat and independent thought in the trunk.
We made it work for years with big tents and professional politicians who knew how to work together between elections. But it is breaking down now.
The founders did not foresee, and could not foresee, what talk radio and then the internet would do to us. The civic fabric has been rent. Politics has become one, long bitter argument — like a bad marriage in which no one will listen, no one will learn, and no one will leave.
Well, right now, the good guys are leaving.
That's why, beyond party reform or a new party, we need something much bigger in America. We need a moral awakening.
And for me that moral awakening would, partly, look like this: First, a mass return to churchgoing. Second, a massive new wave of volunteerism — doing good works, both personally and organizationally.
For it strikes me that many of the very same Americans who stay home on Sunday mornings place ultimate faith in their political tribes and echo chambers.
They also believe in virtual capital punishment. If a professor misspeaks with no ill intent, he must nevertheless be destroyed. If a country singer loses it and lashes out and then apologizes, his apology will not be accepted. He must be sacrificed. We slaughter reputations instead of lambs now.
It also strikes me that we have reached the limits of what government can do to mend individuals or society. Driving up the current $27 trillion national debt by another $2 trillion will not end COVID-19 or anxiety about COVID-19. And free college tuition will not make college education better or more useful for those who seek it.
We need to get back to voluntary associations and neighborliness.
Fred Rogers, the ultimate neighbor, said, after 9/11: "Look for the helpers."
When I look for the helpers I do not see politicians. I see Baldemar Velasquez, of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, still trying to protect and find some measure of justice for the poorest working people in our nation. He's been at it for 40 years and now is working with young people in poor families in Toledo, Ohio, with his "Homies" program, to teach them how to organize themselves and their lives so that they have legal rights and an economic future.
Velasquez literally lives for others. Years ago, he refused the efforts of a friend who wanted to help him create a pension. No such thing for a farmworker, he said.
I see the Rev. Gregory Boyle, of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, working with young gang members to attain for them three simple things: a supportive community, some sort of internal or spiritual savings account, and work — usefulness and income. These are the things we all seek, but some people never get close to them.
I see the downtown churches of Pittsburgh, and people like the Rev. Dan Turis, trying to find the homeless so he can feed the homeless during a pandemic, and the Rev. Tom Hall, taking a whole year to study and preach the Gospel of John in the midst of it all. (Full disclosure: These two men are at First Presbyterian Church, in Pittsburgh, where I go to pray.)
These are just a few of the helpers, who, quietly, practice the politics of Dorothy Day and Fred Rogers: Don't talk compassion, live it. Don't emote for the dispossessed or write them a Christmas check. Feed and clothe them. Personally.
Walk with someone who hurts. And be content if he forgets to thank you.
Only a massive moral reawakening, one that infuses kindness and goodwill into our angry and spouting-off culture, can save us from the nihilistic and self-destructive trajectory our politics is now on.