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May 22, 2008

HAMILTON: Leaders must build consensus even when it’s hard

If you believe, as I do, that building consensus among competing factions is the only way to tackle the persistent challenges that threaten to hamstring our nation, then you have to be prepared to deal with one hard truth: It's extraordinarily difficult to do.

The diversity of public opinion, the intense partisanship of recent years, media coverage that thrives on division — all this and more makes hammering out agreement on difficult issues seem a Herculean task.

Yet Americans want their elected leaders to work across party lines. Over the past year or so, I've been asked on any number of occasions how two groups on which I served, the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, managed to encourage men and women with partisan commitments to produce forward-looking policy ideas on two highly charged issues. We did this in spite of a truly venomous partisan atmosphere in Washington and our keen awareness that powerful interests had much at stake in what we'd end up saying.

Admittedly, both groups were far less complicated than the Congress or a state legislature, where consensus has to be built on scores of issues, not just one. Yet the core principles of consensus-building, I believe, apply no matter how large the body.

Congress certainly understood this in the past. Many times over the years, it has worked in a cooperative way to build consensus behind major legislation. The GI Bill, the Marshall Plan, welfare reform in the 1990s — all took considerable bipartisan legwork to pass. As political scientist Paul Light concluded in his recent book about America's 50 greatest legislative achievements over the past half-century, these accomplishments "reflect a stunning level of bipartisan commitment."

Greatness in policy-making, in other words, requires great effort in consensus-building.

To begin with, it's crucial to work cooperatively, rather than confrontationally. It was clear from the start that in order to do our work well, both the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group would have to delve into arenas that were politically touchy for the White House. Rather than trying to bludgeon the administration into submitting information we needed, however, we kept lines of communication open and spent many hours in dialogue with them; we understood their concerns for national security and the prerogatives of the presidency, and wanted to make sure they grasped our determination to fulfill our mandates by having access to key officials and documents.

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