Despite their partisan differences when they served in Congress more than a decade ago from opposite ends of the state, former Tennessee Congressmen Zach Wamp and Harold Ford united Thursday in urging members of Congress and the public that elects them to reach for common solutions rather than divisive fights.
"In today's culture and airwaves, hate pays," Wamp told the Rotary Club of Chattanooga on Thursday. "I hate to say that, but it is true, and we've got to do something about limiting this divisive and destructive tribalism that tries to demonize the other side."
Wamp, a Chattanooga Republican who served in Congress from 1995 to 2011, is helping lead a bipartisan group of 191 former elected officials dedicated to trying to reform Congress, limit the influence of big money in elections and work on finding bipartisan solutions to major problems. Known as Issue One, the group works to promote more transparency in fundraising, lobbying and outside activities by encouraging small political donations, and it promotes more efforts to promote ethics and election law enforcement.
Enforcement of such rules this year has been hampered by a lack of a quorum of members on the Federal Election Commission.
"We don't have that bipartisanship now," said Ford, a Democrat who served in the U.S. House from Memphis for a decade before being defeated in 2006 in his bid for the U.S. Senate against former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. "If you can't agree with two or three things that your opponent likes and wants, you probably shouldn't be in office."
Ford said he introduced one of the Democratic presidential candidates at a private fundraiser this summer and asked if there was anything positive happening in the country under President Donald Trump that he might lift up. But the candidate, who Ford declined to identify, asked Ford not to highlight any Trump accomplishments.
Ford said he is troubled that most Republicans in Congress won't even acknowledge that Trump has done anything wrong in asking for a political favor from Ukraine's president, but Ford also urged his Democratic colleagues to pursue a censure resolution against the president, rather than the more divisive and likely unsuccessful attempt to remove Trump from office through impeachment.
Wamp said he has personally told GOP Senate candidates Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi "to quit slobbering so much [over Trump] and stand on your own two feet."
"Our state has an extraordinary history with people like Sens. Howard Baker and Bob Corker — people who said what they believed and didn't just go with the flow, because that unfortunately is how you get ahead today in Washington, D.C.," he said. "There's not much courage in the Congress today. People get in their camp and hide in the bosom of their party."
Party leaders raise money for their members and tell them what they need to know, Wamp said.
In the battle over the impeachment of Trump, the successors to Wamp and Ford have taken strong stances backing their differing party positions to help insulate them from a potential intra-party primary challenge.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, the Memphis Democrat who replaced Ford in 2007, is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and a vocal supporter of impeaching Trump. U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, the Chattanooga Republican who succeeded Wamp in Tennessee's 3rd congressional district, has denounced the investigation of the president as a "witch hunt" and said the Democrats who are pursuing the probe "are abusing their power."
While the impeachment divide is making bipartisan solutions backed by Issue One harder to achieve in the near term, Wamp said "everyone knows that post-impeachment and post-election, we can't keep doing this and fighting with each other, and we've got to bring the country together to solve problems."
Issue One convinced the leadership of both parties before the 2018 midterm election to create the House Select Committee on Modernization of Congress, whose vice chairman is U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, the North Georgia Republican who announced last month he will not seek another term in Congress.
Issue One and Wamp also are working on college campuses to encourage more young people to engage in political activity in a less divisive and more constructive manner.
"You've got to start this conversation at a young age on our college campuses, because if we teach the next generation to litigate and prosecute politics in a vicious way and not to listen to the other side but assume they are wrong because they have a different letter behind their names, then our republic is going to have a hard time recovering," Wamp said.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340.