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Finding consensus could turn problems into opportunities

Elections are times to emphasize differences, but it takes common interests to govern effectively.

The midterm elections are behind us. The uncomfortable task of governing begins in January.

Both nationally and here in Maine, Republicans have taken control of key legislative bodies. In Washington, we now have a Republican majority in the House and enough additional Republican senators to derail most any Democratic initiative.

In Maine the autumn "revolution" was even more sweeping, bringing a Republican governor and Republican majorities in both houses – an outcome few predicted.

Looking back at the most expensive of midterm elections in memory, one fears most for American democracy. We Americans seem to have lost the knack for civility and collaboration.

The latest example of the absence of collaboration is playing out in the debate on a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the so-called new START treaty.

The treaty was signed six months ago and has been supported by senior policy leaders from both parties.

However, Republican leadership is reluctant to support the Obama administration on this issue, even though its in an area that has traditionally been relatively free of partisanship.

They have held the administration hostage by forcing the resolution of Bush-era tax cuts as a condition for any further action in this lame-duck session.

Woe unto the Republicans if this is an example of what happens when we put them in positions of power.

What America needs are leaders more like John Gardner than John Boehner.

Gardner was the Republican secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Johnson administration and subsequent founder of Common Cause. He died in 2002, but his good work lives on.

In a recent speech by Bill Moyers on the 40th anniversary of the founding of Common Cause, Moyers reminded us of the wisdom, insights and hope that Gardner brought to public debate.

It was Gardner who first coined this phrase, in surveying the challenges that the nation faced in 1965 when he took over at HEW: "What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems."

Does that sentiment ever ring true today.

Unfortunately we have a set of leaders of both parties for whom the phrase "breathtaking opportunities" is associated more with political gain than with what is best for the country.

What would Gardner think of the country today?

He would certainly be appalled by the corruption of money in the political system and by the partisan unwillingness to collaborate, however great the urgency of the problem.

Whether it be the new START treaty, the deficit problem, or providing health insurance to all Americans, finding common ground seems to be a lost art.

This situation is serious. Moyers quotes Gardner's own words, so relevant today: "We are treading the edge of a precipice here."

There is a disconnection between the people and their leaders. Citizens do not trust their government and a variety of polls indicate this mistrust extends to corporations and the media.

People do not feel that they have control of their lives, and the sense of impotence grows like a great life-endangering tumor. Civilizations die of disenchantment.

If enough people doubt their society, the whole venture falls apart. We must never let anger, fashionable cynicism, or political partisanship blur our vision of this point.

Just now in our history we are suffering from lots of blurred vision. The hope in Gardner's words comes mostly from the fact that he penned them in the '60s -- and here we are some 50 years later still grappling with these issues.

Thankfully, we are a resilient people. Though it is difficult to see where the leadership will come from to bridge partisan divides and forge real solutions to our pressing problems, Gardner, were he with us today, would say "we must not despair of the republic."

He would urge us to summon our better selves, to be guided by the best interests of country.

How to start? I suggest taking one issue that divides us and building a national coalition to find common ground.

There are several issues we might choose, many having surfaced through the president's recent Commission on Deficit Reduction, such as raising Social Security eligibility to age 69.

I recommend that we commission a national policy facilitator, such as America Speaks, to hold a simultaneous national debate with the goal of achieving a national consensus on this one issue.

America Speaks led a similar approach earlier this year on the entire deficit problem, and had modest success in building consensus on that complex set of issues.

Gardner said "everything comes back to the talent and energy and sense of purpose of human beings."

Let's prove him right.