Wydening the Gap in Partisan Politics

United States Senator Ron Wyden knows two things about first impressions. They are made very quickly — your first five steps into a room matter most — and, even after representing Oregon in Washington, D.C. for three decades, he’s still making them.

So he strides confidently into an upstairs hall at the Siuslaw Valley Rescue & Fire Station, already wired with a cordless microphone and talking with constituents from his very first step. Wearing a sport jacket but no tie, he launches this town hall meeting 20 steps before reaching the podium.

He thanks an 11-year-old for leading the room in the Pledge of Allegiance, acknowledges the elected officials in the room, talks for just a couple of minutes, and jumps quickly into questions. The room is full but slightly under its stated capacity of 125. Good thing, because the fire marshall’s office is downstairs.

The first question sounds imprecatory, colored by a talk radio tone, “Most of us in the room are over 65 and worried about Medicare. Why are you conspiring with Congressman Paul Ryan, that poster boy of the radical right, to change it?”

Wyden steps forward, and extends his arms. Both his feet and his hands convey that he is not afraid and not to be feared. After 605 town hall meetings — at least one in every Oregon county, every year he’s been in the Senate — he knows how to respond when somebody is upset or angry.

He starts by describing how helping seniors has been the passion that has filled his adult life, ever since his childhood dream of playing professional basketball was tragically cut short by not being good enough: “What I lacked in height, I made up for by being slow.”

From there he reframes his initiative with Rep. Ryan as a commitment to keep Medicare affordable and universal “for all time.” He defends what he calls “principled bipartisanship.” He wants to have constructive conversations between lawmakers that are no less civil than “the one we’re having together right now.” He comes back to this point — and the gentleman who made it — over and over, weaving each question together. It feels like a living room conversation and it leaves a good first impression.

Wyden’s Oregon Town Hall Meeting No. 606 goes according to plan.

Later, in a conference room downstairs, Wyden again strides into the room unannounced and has the first word, extending his hand and flashing a smile. He doesn’t take the seat at the head of the table, choosing instead to sit beside me, with his aide across the room. He splays his limbs the way basketball players do during a time out, allowing oxygen to flow more quickly.

We’re chatting about his bold brand of bipartisanship that started with Gordon Smith, but since has included such strange bedfellows as Republican Senators Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett. He’s nodding and agreeing — oxygenating — until I utter the word “voucher.” He bolts upright, borrows my pen, and role plays with me what’s wrong with vouchers. He prefers “premium support,” insisting the difference will lead to “guaranteed affordability.”

Wyden’s style of bipartisanship doesn’t slice and dice the alternatives until nobody can recognize the original ingredients. Congress has become so adept at “cutting the baby in half” that the sausage factory of lawmaking has become a giant blender. The puree out of the spigot satisfies no one.

Wyden is willing to allow governing philosophies to compete. He’ll compromise on policies. He won’t compromise his convictions.

If vouchers (or premium support) for private insurance are allowed to compete with the single-payer “public option” that is traditional Medicare, maybe we’ll learn which plan is better, once and for all. “For all” is the key phrase — as in “for all Americans” and “for all time.”

Reaching across the aisle is getting harder. The partisan gap after each election seems to widen. But then there’s Oregon’s senior senator, Wydening that gap in his own way.

The blender analogy makes the senator smile. Then there’s a knock on the door. A car is waiting to get him to Reedsport by 4 o’clock, in time for No. 607.


Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs here. Details of the Wyden-Ryan plan are at www.wyden.senate.gov.