As we head into summer's trifecta of national holidays -- Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day -- politicians are readying their speeches to graduating students, patriotic picnickers and political rallies.

Almost certainly, the speakers will remind us that our nation became great -- and our freedoms protected -- because throughout our country's history each generation shared a vision of a future that is better than today. And, as a nation, earlier generations were willing to pay the price for progress.

These speeches will predictably praise an America that used to do big things. Audiences will be reminded that Social Security and Medicare were created to provide a safety net for the elderly.

Some politicians will speak of leaders who shaped a bold future by building a national network of highways and launching a program to place a man on the moon. Many will highlight how we started on the path toward a more fair society with the Civil Rights Act.

Missing from most speeches, though, will be the attribute that also is most absent in public policy today. Americans in previous generations didn't just do big things, they did them with a commitment to shared sacrifice for the common good.

Social Security didn't pay out benefits until a payroll tax was in place. The Highway Trust Fund -- created in 1956 to pay for interstate highway construction -- was financed with a dedicated gas tax. President John Kennedy didn't just articulate the goal of landing a man on the moon; he committed his personal prestige to funding the program.

Shared sacrifice created common ground. Each of these achievements, along with issues as contentious as the 1965 Civil Rights Act, won bipartisan support in Congress. Our country is at its greatest when bold rhetoric is backed by courageous and responsible leadership that unites rather than divides us.

Look at the reality of leadership today. Congress ignores the exploding costs of Social Security and Medicare. They politicize the debate instead of offering solutions that would make these programs sustainable for the long-term.

Today's Congress can't muster the votes to reauthorize a highway bill, even though roads and bridges are crumbling, because too many politicians fear the political consequences of voting for tax increases.

America's health system is in crisis, but the solutions offered by Democrats, Republicans and their allied interest groups have little to do with the real and necessary changes that could lower the cost of health care for all.

Today's leaders claim to carry on the tradition of those who in the 1960s overcame the country's racial divisions by finding consensus on civil rights. In fact, they not only can't find common ground on immigration, they polarize the debate further, leaving no room for constructive dialogue about a sensible solution.

Summer's holidays celebrate those who took personal and political risks to build a better nation. Today, on issue after issue, instead of calling Americans to a higher standard, our political class plays it safe. Politicians' behavior serves only one purpose. It helps them keep their jobs without doing their job.

The solution starts with "we the people." If we want better leaders, all of us need to be better voters and citizens. That begins by asking ourselves -- and every candidate we encounter -- two questions.

• On the big issues of the day (fiscal responsibility, entitlement reform, infrastructure needs and immigration) where will you find common ground with those in other parties?

• On what major issue do you disagree with your own party and its interest groups?

Too many of us -- and too many of our politicians -- like to think that our side is always right and the other side always wrong. We play the blame game. But that only leads to gridlock, not progress.

As we enter the election season, we will all be better voters if we put aside the blogs, tune out talk radio, discard direct-mail pieces and ignore political ads. Instead, take time to listen and learn and to sort fact from fiction.

To move ahead as a nation, and to secure a better future for our children and grandchildren, we must move toward common ground by holding ourselves and our political candidates to a higher standard.


Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.