Former House of Representative member Barney Frank (D–MA) sat down with former New Hampshire governor John Sununu (R) last Wednesday to discuss the status of economic opportunity in the Trump era. Gail Chaddock, the former political editor for the Christian Science Monitor, moderated their discussion.
Sponsored by the Common Ground Committee and the Christian Science Monitor, the discussion was part of a series called “Critical Conversations,” an initiative started the college in response to the political events that occurred last spring. Its mission is to emphasize Middlebury’s commitment to free expression and inclusivity while promoting better arguments with greater respect.
The conversation, titled “Find Common Ground for Economic Opportunity in the Trump Era,” focused on four main topics: jobs and growth, economic opportunity and the social safety net, taxes and regulations, and immigration. Throughout the discussion, the two politicians emphasized the importance of maintaining civility during a time of increasing political polarization.
“The process of arguing and disagreeing is essential to democracy and to finding the right answer,” Frank said.
Both politicians blamed the proliferation of technology and the wide-spread use of social media for causing the current political climate.
“Because of today’s technology, people only talk to others whom they know have the same political beliefs. This promotes a cluster of sameness and creates a climate in this country that dissuades confrontation,” Sununu said.
Both men used this conversation to criticize the media — saying the media only covers the negative aspects of government and ignores the positives. Frank said this focus on negativity makes bipartisan cooperation increasingly difficult.
“When you compromise, you are the traitor,” Frank said. Both politicians emphasized a need for the media to find a balance between holding the government accountable and praising their successes.
In terms of economic policy, the two did not disagree on specific issues but instead they emphasized different aspects of the economy they deemed most important. Sununu highlighted the need to encourage capital investment on U.S. soil.
“The government needs to create incentives for companies to repatriate jobs here,” he said. “Democrats and Republicans need to come together for tax bill that has incentives while protecting the middle class.”
He added a need for the tax reform bill to include a way for the three to five trillion dollars in companies overseas to come back the U.S. economy.
Although Frank praised trade and capital investment, he put more emphasis on the need for equity.
“We make money by selling things to other countries. It’s a mistake we’ve made a push for trade yet we fail to compensate those people who are hurt by trade,” Frank said. “Trade does not offset the benefits between winners and losers. It multiplies the benefits for the winners, and the losers are the same.”
Both men condemned what they saw as President Trump’s inability to produce a coherent agenda — Frank going as far as to refer to Trump as “the insulter-and-chief,” but also they praised him for starting a dialogue about the need for countries who participate in NATO to pay their fair share.
Their discussion turned to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to apply to remain in the country. Both criticized President Trump unfavorable view of the policy.
“People whom were brought here without being asked should be allowed to live here and become citizens,” Frank said.
Sununu added that DACA was a potential cornerstone of cooperation for Congress, saying that this policy was the perfect opportunity for the two parties to reach across the aisle and begin compromising.
The conversation ended with both men emphasizing the most effective way for students to bring about change in the government was trust in the political system.
“It’s important to participate in the process and stay with it even if things don’t happen quickly,” Sununu said. “Keep participating and don’t get frustrated. The system was designed to be hard to change major policy.”
Frank stressed the need to vote against obstructionist politicians in order for more legislation to be passed.
“Primary elections have more of an effect on politics than final elections. Refusing to vote in the primary perpetuates extremists in politics,” he said.
The audience had mixed opinions on the discussion.
“I appreciated their perspective and their history having both worked in Congress for so long and how, as representatives of two different parties, they were able to forge compromises and have substantive discussions” said Margie Harris, a visitor from Portland, Oregon, in town to see the leaves change colors.
Jackie McMakin, a local resident of Middlebury, said, “It’s enlightening and refreshing to hear a Democrat and a Republican spark each other to go deeper and to create value for the country.”
But to some of the students in attendance the conversations centered too much on the importance of respectful dialogue during confrontation, which some students felt ultimately detracted from the over all content of the debate.
“They were too focused on civility so they ended up not having any substantive debate over policy,” Avery Dyer ’21 said.
David Rigas ’21 agreed with Dyer. “They emphasized the importance of disagreement, but it kind of seemed like they agreed on everything,” he said.
The next event in the Critical Conversations series will take place on Thursday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m. in Wilson Hall. It is titled “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.”