Cal Thomas lambasts liberal ideas (but does not demonize people) on television and in his syndicated column. Democratic Party stalwart Bob Beckel, who ran Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in 1984, castigates conservative concepts (but not people) in his gigs. Together they write a USA Today column that tries to go beyond polarization, and they've also produced Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America (William Morrow, 2007).
The book, though, does not tell why they get along so well, nor how their encounter on a TV talk show led to something much deeper: Thomas asked Beckel how he was doing, and Beckel responded honestly that he was not doing well. What happened then did not come out at first in an interview I conducted before students in New York City. Not until the end did we hear how Thomas was instrumental in leading Beckel to Christ.
WORLD: In your book you predicted the rise of Barack Obama and talked about him as a "common ground" candidate. Do you still see him this way?
THOMAS: In his book The Audacity of Hope Obama said what a lot of us feel: We're tired of the politics of personal destruction, the name-calling implying that somebody loves America less because they have a different view of a policy issue. I find this outrageous. If I don't wear an American flag lapel pin do I love America less than the person who does? The American flag lapel pin is probably made in China anyway. What I want to know as a conservative is now that Obama has talked the talk, will he walk the walk? On which of the major issues, foreign and domestic, is he willing to compromise and come my way?
BECKEL: If you talk about a bipartisan common ground candidate, John McCain was the first in the modern political era to lay claim to that. The McCain-Kennedy bill, the McCain-Feingold bill-forget what you think of the merits of them, those bipartisan efforts on his part almost got him driven out of the Republican Party. He was the perfect candidate for the Republicans to run, with a shot at winning the White House, because of his bipartisan maverick image. He then publicly goes off and endorses Bush's tax cuts and becomes essentially an advocate for a Bush third term, which is impossible to win. In the meantime Barack Obama, who never had a history of doing bipartisan stuff, takes that message and makes a whole campaign out of it. I think he'll win the White House on it.
WORLD: Obama, at least according to National Journal, is the most liberal senator in Washington. So, how do you see common ground coming out of this campaign?
BECKEL: Let me be purely pragmatic about this: In politics the reason common ground will work is that polarization is bad politics in the voting booth and common ground is good politics. The notion that negative campaigns work (and I've been involved in 187 campaigns) is wrong. In the 2006 off-year elections the analysis was that people lost their seats because of Iraq. We went back and looked at those district by district. It was not about Iraq; it was about polarization. Common ground as a voting tool, as a message, is worth a good seven to 10 points in the country. That's what it's about. Forget the idea that this is some kumbaya moment where we all come together and love one another. The reality is votes. Barack Obama took the message and it has been with him throughout the Democratic nomination. That'll tell you something.
WORLD: But how will he actually pursue common ground? Let's look at one of the most difficult issues-abortion. Jill Stanek, the Illinois pediatric nurse, has written about appearing before Obama's committee (when he was in the Illinois senate) on infant born alive legislation: After a "failed" abortion when the baby is born alive, do you try to keep him alive or do you just let him die? Stanek has commented that, despite his public demeanor, Obama was heartless and callous. How is Obama going to find common ground on abortion when he doesn't even want to protect an infant already born alive?
THOMAS: The left has said (even Bill Clinton has said) that we want to make abortion safe, legal, and rare. We have the solution for making it rare, while keeping the so-called choice factor in place. Sonograms have reduced the number of abortions and abortion-minded women, so we have truth in labeling. We have truth in lending, and you can't go into a supermarket without-by federal law-seeing labels on bottles, packages, and cans containing all kinds of information on the contents, so this is about informing women more fully. This would make it rare. Women would still have the choice, but we're simply giving them additional information, in this case sonograms, so that the choice will be fully informed.
I've done more crisis pregnancy center events than any other individual around the country for the last 30 years. I have talked to hundreds and maybe thousands of women-those who have kept their babies and those who have had abortions. The single most often heard term or phrase that I hear is, "If I'd only known, if I'd only had additional information, I would have made a different choice." There's the answer. It doesn't require a Supreme Court decision, it doesn't require an executive order, it simply requires more fully informing women, and the so-called pro-choicers who are against that are censors.
BECKEL: I was pro-choice all my life until I came to faith and now I find it very difficult to reconcile that in biblical terms. I've had to remove myself from a number of pro-choice groups; I was on their boards. In politics you pick your fights. It is the most difficult example you put forward on Obama. I don't know where he would come down, but my guess is you probably wouldn't be able to find common ground with Obama on that issue.
Many people consider that the most pressing issue, and I understand that, but let's keep in mind here that the hard pro-life faction in this country who demand no abortions, versus the hard pro-choice faction who demand abortion at any time, are about 15 percent on either side. So you've got about 70 percent who look for some compromise. You can say, how do you compromise life? That's what we would say, but that's the reality of where the American people are. Part of common ground is approaching those issues that are doable.
WORLD: What issues will be the doable common ground issues of this campaign?
THOMAS: I think McCain is right on immigration. There's no way that 12 million illegals are going to be rounded up. Just imagine the political downside of seeing all these buses rolling up to places and seeing these people and their babies and their weeping mothers and the rest being put on there, and hauling them off to the airport and sending them off to Honduras or Mexico or wherever. It just is not going to happen, so something has to be done to regularize those people who are here doing a lot of work that a lot of other people who have been here longer don't want to do.
That's one thing. The second thing is, you've got to be able to control the borders of this country. The people on the right who are against McCain and Bush's comprehensive immigration reform measure were absolutely right to stress that. People on the right said, "We got taken in 1986 on the Reagan amnesty thing that basically legalized illegals and said 'OK, you all come!' Everybody did and now we've got 12 [million] more." So the right was correct in saying that we're not going to trust you again. Fool me once, don't fool me twice. We want the border control first. That's something we can find common ground on if people would get off the emotional extremes and get to the reality of the situation.
BECKEL: I wouldn't expect to see common ground forged in the campaign in the fall because they clearly have to stake out their differences. But there will be immigration reform and it will look like McCain-Kennedy. There will be a way for people to pay some fine and get to the back of the line. I don't think they are going to be sent back home for visas. I was listening to these right-wingers say "Oh, it's terrible. Oh, these immigrants coming in." In the meantime their hedges are being cut, their lawns are being cut, their beds are being made, the spas are being cleaned up, their Mercedes are being cleaned down.
Second, there will begin to be a means test on Social Security recipients. Democrats, we have always used Social Security as the great whipping post. I remember my mother used to say to me the week before an election, "I just saw on the news that Social Security is going away." What she saw was an ad that I did with a faux news guy at the TV station saying, "Republicans want to do away with Social Security. It's about to go out." She called me up screaming, "How am I supposed to live without Social Security?" I'd say "Mom, just go get all your friends, go down and vote Democrat on Tuesday and you'll have it back on Wednesday."
The reality is we're not going to get away with that much longer. Social Security was never meant to be an entitlement. It's like insurance on a car, you don't get it back. A certain amount is to insure you from loss. People who are in Florida making $200,000 on bond income do not deserve Social Security and Medicare. Obama's right on this. We take Social Security taxes out of $101,000. Obama wants to raise that to $190,000. That's probably a common ground solution that can survive.
THOMAS: Right. Giving more money to the government is like giving more blood to Dracula. It just encourages him. Cut the spending.
BECKEL: You can't cut Social Security entitlement because it's viewed as an entitlement.
THOMAS: Social Security ought to go back to its original purpose. They've added so many things on to it that it's a crushing burden.
WORLD: When should we compromise and when should we stand up for principles, even if the result is a battle?
THOMAS: A real statesman recognizes that our enemy is not the other political party. Our enemy is the people who want to take away our freedom, like the Taliban. Freedom is not a natural state-otherwise, everybody would be free. Oppression and dictatorship, discrimination against women, keeping people down, that seems to be the natural state because that's what characterizes a lot of the world under different regimes, some religious, some pagan like the communists. They want power at the top and they want everybody else to be subservient to them.
WORLD: Is our tendency today to emphasize differences rather than similarities-and if so, why?
THOMAS: You can't ever agree with someone on the other party because then you're likely to be seen as a wimpy, surrender monkey, white-flag waving, left-wing secular humanist, ACLU type, or a right-wing Bible-banger, imposer-of-religion type. On a lot of cable television we've both called into news shows and been turned down. If we ask why, we're told, "We want somebody edgier." They want screamers. They want people putting the other person down. They don't want legitimate conversation and real common ground and that's the kind of thing we face now.
BECKEL: I used to direct Crossfire, take gasoline, and throw it into the middle of the table all the time. Cal was with the Moral Majority and he would do the same thing. I used to be able to lie with the best of them. I was so good at lying, except as I got older I couldn't remember all of my lies. . . . Now, were there ethical lapses on my part? Yes.
WORLD: How often did such lapses occur?
BECKEL: Before I had faith? Brother, in every aspect of my life. I'm a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and I can tell you parts I remember of what I did. But there were many times-I took a date once-
THOMAS: Let's not get too specific.
BECKEL: No, no. I took a date once, asked her if she had a passport, and took her out to Dulles airport and bought roundtrip tickets on the Concorde. It cost me $8,000. Flew to London for a weekend and I don't remember much of it at all except for the bill. So, my lapses were fairly significant. I can say this, in the last six or seven years since I have come to faith it's much more difficult for me to do those things because it haunts me all the time. The Spirit literally gets into my head and drives me nuts until I either get down and confess my sins or I go back and make amends on it.
WORLD: So, how did you come to faith?
BECKEL: I was in the process of getting divorced. I was married to a professional golfer. You don't know fear until you see a five iron in the hands of a professional golfer at two in the morning. It's a scary thing. I had a lot of difficulties. I had retreated to a farm in rural Maryland and refused to come back to Washington to do any television appearances. I got a call one day from Fox saying, would you come and do an appearance with Cal Thomas? And for some inexplicable reason, I said yes. Five different times I tried to call and cancel. And I couldn't cancel.
I reluctantly drove in and there was Cal. I knew him a bit, but not really well. He looks at me and says, "Is there something wrong?" Right away. Instead of saying the normal Washington thing-"Good. Fine. Great"-I said, "Actually it's not." And he said, "Let's talk about it after we've done the show." He spent many hours with me after that and talked about faith but never pushed faith on me. He sent me a lot of books. I was one of those people who needed to have proof. I needed to see skin and bones. The idea of whales and arks and burning bushes and opening seas-all that was just in my mind Charlton Heston.
One of the first books that Cal sent me was Evidence That Demands a Verdict. I began to read that. Cal continued to send me books. It must have cost him thousands of dollars because this farm of mine was way out and this poor postal guy kept coming out hauling these boxes of books. I read and read and read. Finally, Cal said, "Why don't you come to church with me?" Now, I hadn't been to church in . . . well, I hadn't been to church. So Cal takes me to Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, which is full of more right-wing Republicans than any church in all of Washington. [But] the message that day was a message that worked. It was about faith and belief and that there is a certain leap that you need to take but in the end what else is there? When you compare the rest of life, what else is there really? Slowly but surely it came to me that there was something there.