Transpartisan Coalitions: Success and Limitations by Joseph McCormick

While organizing the First Conference on Democracy in America I had the idea of using the event to build a relationship between the leaders of MoveOn.org and the Christian Coalition. I figured if they found common ground and cooperated on anything, it would be a game changer.

I had been a Christian Coalition organizer in Georgia in the ’90s and knew how big—about four million members—and powerful this group was, particularly in the South, where you couldn’t win a Republican primary if they opposed you. I only knew MoveOn.org by reputation.

MoveOn.org was founded at the same time I was running for Congress in 1998, also the time of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Joan Blades and Wes Boyd circulated a one sentence petition on the Internet saying, “Congress must censure President Clinton and move on to pressing issues facing the nation.” It went viral and within a couple weeks over a half million people had signed up.

In the spring of 2004 I guessed Joan’s e-mail address at MoveOn.org and sent her an invitation to the retreat. I got a vey short response: at the moment her priority was “regime change.”

After the November election, the liberals, having mounted an historically unified effort to defeat George Bush and Dick Cheney, were deeply depressed. Within two weeks I got an e-mail from Joan asking if I could arrange a dialogue with some conservatives. She was a lawyer mediator and genuinely interested in understanding.

In the winter of 2005 I went to Berkeley to go for a walk with her to discuss the idea of a Second Conference on Democracy in America. I wanted to build more transpartisan leadership relationships, thus moving me closer to my dream of local transpartisan town halls, library and café dialogues, and a Transpartisan National Convention—all in search of win/win, citizen-generated policy options (what I’ve come to call “citizen legislating”).

It was a stretch to travel to Berkeley of all places. When I was in the military, I had gone to a naval air station in California. I refused to leave the federal property, because in my future political career I never wanted to admit I had set foot in this place where “the hippies who hated their country lived.” I had still more forgiveness to do. It took a great deal for me to meet Joan in the heart of what I had considered enemy territory.

Later that summer I had a phone conversation with the Chair of the Christian Coalition Roberta Combs. I did my best to get Joan and Roberta together: first by exchanging cell phone numbers, but they never called each other; then by coordinating lunch in New York, which they ended up canceling. Finally they both agreed to come to Gold Lake and Joan helped me reach out to a number of other key progressive leaders.

Now that I had the prospect of building a second transpartisan leadership retreat around the leaders of the two biggest political dogs on the block, Christian Coalition and MoveOn.org, both of whom were women inclined towards cooperation, I had to wait for a second grant from the Fetzer Institute to organize the gathering later that year.

At the national level, through the leadership retreats, I was seeking effective transpartisan dialogue methods that resulted, in time, in a new web of relationships across political boundaries. The national events had their effect, but not the ones I had originally intended. MoveOn.org and Christian Coalition took out a full page ad in the New York Times and did a joint Capitol Hill press conference on the topic of “net neutrality” (keeping the Internet free of private control); Gore seemed to open his mind to free-market climate change solutions by launching a green venture capital fund; and word seemed to get back to evangelical leader and founder of the Christian Coalition Pat Robertson, because he surprised his millions of 700 Club viewers by announcing, “climate change is real.”

It was useful and gratifying to facilitate relationships between political professionals, but my main interest in building trust and respect between them was so they would agree to engage their grassroots members in local meet-ups and town hall dialogues similar to the ones we had done in Ashland, Oregon—which we will get to shortly.

The problem was they all knew the way politics works. It’s a money game. You usually have to demonize someone to get people to write your organization a check. Without an enemy, your money dries up. They could get to know each other privately, even like each other, even compare notes, but publicly they had to stay “on the reservation” or their own tribes would attack them, their funding would suffer, or they could lose their job.

This was a real concern. At the Second Conference, Drew Bond, the president of Townhall.com, really connected to the possibility of a transpartisan way of doing politics. At the time Townhall.com, started by the conservative Heritage Foundation of which Drew had been chief of staff, was the closest thing to a MoveOn.org on the right (now it is Freedom Works, one of the lead Tea Party organizers). It had about a million members.

Drew was a Christian conservative and truly believed in the peace and reconciliation message of Jesus. He didn’t seem to feel that working constructively across divides would compromise his personal values. The four-day event moved him. He went back to Washington with the idea that he could make his organization less combative with the left. Although I don’t honestly have all the details of the story because in politics much happens behind closed doors, within a couple months he was fired. When I got an e-mail that he was moving to Alabama to build houses, I felt partly responsible. (He later returned to DC to join the Bush Energy Department.)


Excerpted from Reuniting America: A Toolkit for Changing the Political Game by Joseph McCormick and Steve Bhaerman

After nearly a decade as a Christian Coalition activist and Republican nominee for the U.S. Congress in one of the most conservative districts in America, Joseph McCormick learned firsthand the most destructive force in our country today is Americans taking sides against other Americans. The turning point in his life came in 2001 when his political career, marriage, business and reputation collapsed, his relationships having been eroded by mistrust and hatred of his enemies. The pain of this personal loss was transformative and he began slowly rebuilding his life on more solid ground, searching for a healthier way to engage in politics.

Since 2004 he has organized a series of ground breaking private retreats that brought over 145 national leaders representing over 70 million Americans into dialogue in search of opportunities to collaborate. His passion now is to apply the tools developed in these gatherings to facilitating cooperation between grassroots groups from all sides. In time, this informal citizen leader’s network will serve as a resource for local, state and national decision makers searching for innovative, bottom-up, win-win solutions in this time of crisis. He is a former officer in the U.S. Army Rangers and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and Yale University. For more information, click here.

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