Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, joined two of his congressional allies on the University of Wyoming’s campus Tuesday for a wide-ranging discussion in which all three men decried the decline of centrism in Washington in favor of the “rigidity of party politics.”
The panel discussion at UW’s American Heritage Center was advertised as a discussion about the balance of power between Congress and the presidency.
Instead, much of the discussion inevitably drifted to two of Simpson’s favorite political topics: Civility and political compromise.
Laramie resident Lorraine Saulino-Klein, who ran as a Democrat for the Wyoming House last year, asked Simpson for advice on how constituents could end the era of “compromise being a dirty word.”
The ex-senator urged moderate, open-minded people to become bigger players in local political parties.
Simpson recounted how he became a precinct-man in his early 20s, working his way up the political ladder.
Too often, he said, the political parties produce candidates that are more extreme in their positions than their constituents.
If more centrists became involved in their local political parties, they too would likely eventually earn the clout to run for Congress.
“I’m worried that, in the long run, it’s the fringes in Congress that dominate the conversation,” Simpson said.
Commenting on recent political debates, Simpson decried both the ideological rigidity of the House Freedom Caucus and liberal congresspeople like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, a freshman representative — and the youngest congresswoman ever elected — who’s vowed to use her recent political stardom to help unseat moderates in upcoming Democratic primaries.
During his 18 years in the Senate, Simpson was known for his bipartisanship, something he acknowledges is a hard thing for Republican senators to succeed at in the era of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who Simpson called “the most potent force in government today.”
Simpson said he was frustrated this year when, during the campaign for next year’s the Democratic presidential nomination, numerous opponents of former Vice President Joe Biden lambasted the race’s frontrunner for talking nostalgically about how he was able to successfully compromise with Southern segregationists while serving in the U.S. Senate during the 1970s.
“I was stunned that had legs,” Simpson said. “I had to deal with jerks and I didn’t give them the saliva test of purity. If that’s what you’re doing in the Senate, no wonder the damn thing can’t work. If you can’t go up to an absolute commie and work with them, then get out.”
Early in the event, the three speakers did touch on the discussion’s advertised theme: the Constitutional balance of power between Congress and the presidency.
UW Interim President Neil Theobald introduced the discussion and said that issue is one that concerns him.
“Over the last two presidents, we’ve moved toward enlarging and broadening the power of the presidency,” he said.
Simpson noted that, while many presidents in the 20th century have liberally used executive orders, he does notice a greater “misuse” of executive orders than when he was in Congress.
“The current president is thoroughly convinced that he is more than just a president,” Simpson said. “He’ll think of anything to bring up for an executive order.”
Simpson typically dodges reporters’ questions baiting him for criticisms of President Donald Trump, but he was more candid Wednesday.
“I’m embarrassed about Trump and I’m embarrassed about my Senate,” he said.
But despite his misgivings about the incumbent president, Simpson did urge Trump’s detractors to hold back on feeling hatred for the man.
“What’s in this room and what’s been in every room since this president was elected — there’s hatred in this room,” he said. “It’s not disgust, it’s not disappointment, it’s hatred. … Look, I didn’t vote for Obama and I didn’t vote for Trump, but they’re my president.”
Former Congressmen Scott Klug of Wisconsin and Brian Baird of Washington joined Simpson for the discussion. Both former congressman urged political courage in Washington, especially the ability to defy party leaders and even constituents to make the right decision.
“I think you’ve got to be willing to lose this job in order to earn it,” said Klug, a Republican. “We need more people in Congress who are willing to lose elections.”