From left: Fortune Magazine Washington correspondent Nina Easton; Kennedy School Professor Nicholas Burns; former Bill Clinton policy director Elaine Kamarck, and moderator Tom Ashbrook of WBUR discuss the aftermath of the 2012 election.
Republicans and Democrats alike are relieved this election is finally over. But from the endless barrage of campaign ads and robocalls to the breakup of friends because of political differences, it has left Americans with a lot to process.
On Thursday night, Emerson College sponsored an event, “Behind the Curtain: What Just Happened? What’s Next?” in the hope of helping the audience do just that.
During the spirited 90-minute, post-election forum, co-hosted by WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook and Emerson College Leader-in-Residence Carole Simpson, panelists explored the political impact of the elections and wrestled with how a country still deeply divided can solve some of the pressing problems before it.
Panelists from both sides seemed to agree that the polarized Congress must set aside grudges to solve problems and that President Barack Obama will need to be more personally involved in facilitating this legislative process.
“The country is thirsting for bipartisanship and the government, as it stands, is a broken ship that can’t get us there,” Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory said.
Later, former Bill Clinton Policy Director Elaine Kamarck said that has to change, that the time has come for both sides to work together. “The people have spoken,” she said, “And what the people have said is, ‘We like both of you!’”
The evening at the Cutler Majestic Theatre was split into two parts. During the first, Simpson moderated a panel analyzing the election that included McGrory, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, Jim Braude of NECN and NewsTalk 96.9 FM, and MassINC pollster Steve Koczela.
Ashbrook, host of On Point, moderated a panel looking at what comes next that included Kamarck, now a visiting lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School; Fortune Magazine Washington correspondent and Fox News Sunday regular Nina Easton, and retired American diplomat and current Kennedy School Prof. Nicholas Burns.
The audience shared its thoughts, too.
“I’m here tonight because this has been such an emotional experience,” said Bostonian Tommye K. Mayer, who says she’s ended two relationships this year because of politics.
“Even before the results came in I knew I would need to debrief and think about, ‘Okay, now what?’”
The evening began with an evaluation of the election and how it played out.
“The problem for Mitt Romney was he was positioned so far to the right he could never become the moderate I think he truly is, and it cost him the presidency,” the Globe’s McGrory said.
During the primaries, he said, Romney cast off his reputation as a moderate Massachusetts governor to assume more polarized positions in line with those of right-wing opponents. He rejected President Obama’s healthcare system despite its striking similarities to a system he signed into Massachusetts law and became a champion of traditionally Republican social issues.
Noted Easton in the second panel, “They had to go so far to the right to get through the primaries it really hurt the campaign, especially when it comes to the Hispanic vote.”
Romney took a tough line on immigration during the primaries, attacking rivals as being soft on the issue and turning Hispanic voters off early on. His call for “self deportation” haunted him later during a “meet the candidate” event sponsored by the Spanish-language network Univision. At 10 percent of all voters on election night, Hispanics turned out in bigger numbers than ever before. Seventy-one percent backed the president.
Kamarck noted that the president will have to acknowledge this support in his second term. “The administration will have to propose something on immigration reform,” she said. “But what they think they can get through is another issue. They’ll either go big and lose or do some smaller things the Republican House might pass.”
Since the balance of power remains largely unchanged – a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate, the speakers agreed finding common ground between both parties will be key in shifting from campaigning to governing. And that, panelists from both parties agreed, will demand leadership from President Obama.
“The president hasn't shown a capacity to get down off the stage and get involved in the legislation,” Burns said. “The administration has [deferred] too much to the Democratic legislators without actually becoming part of the process.”
Kamarck agreed. “President Obama has to engage in Congress this term in a way the first time he just didn't,” she said. “He has to be in the middle of the frame instead of staying outside of it.”
His first test, she said, will be the so-called “fiscal cliff,” a term that refers to the double-whammy of expiring tax cuts for all Americans and automatic across-the-board budget cuts passed by Congress last year when the two sides could not agree on either expenditures or taxes.
A new Congressional Budget Office report suggests that unless lawmakers can agree on some less abrupt economic solution, the economy could spin back into recession and the jobless rate could spike.
Weld said he believed a compromise was possible.
“Republicans don’t have an incentive to engineer gridlock to deny President Obama’s re-election anymore,” he said. “So my guess is they’ll hold their noses and come up with something.”
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had said defeating President Obama in this election was the GOP’s No. 1 priority, and Democratic leaders have long accused Republicans of caring more about winning elections than creating jobs. But panelists said both sides would need to make concessions.
National politics wasn’t the only subject discussed. In the first segment, McGrory and Braude clashed on whether Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, defeated in his re-election bid by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, had lived up to his name as a moderate lawmaker.
“With Scott Brown it was more like looking at the taillights than the headlights,” said McGrory. “He’s technically moderate but he just hasn’t been a leader.”
Braude argued Brown stayed true to his bipartisan promise.
“For a guy that’s only been in there two years, Brown did as much as he could do,” said Braude. “Without Scott Brown there would be no Dodd-Frank -- he cast the deciding vote, just as he did on a number of other bipartisan issues.”
The Dodd-Frank law strengthened financial oversight and consumer financial protection.
In opening the second panel, Ashbook noted that the themes of the last two elections were very different.
“I was thinking back on ‘08 when the theme was hope and change and Sarah Palin,” he said. “This year the theme was fear.”
Both sides have been so afraid of the other, he said, that there has been no room for conversation, much less compromise. Moving forward, he added, perhaps lawmakers can set aside their rhetoric of fear for one of negotiation.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.