Have you ever had a friendly debate that seems to run in circles? On the surface, it sounds as though you agree, but as the conversation unfolds, it becomes apparent that you and your opponent are using the same words, but the meanings are entirely different. You have fundamental disagreements that cannot be bridged.
At that point, you have two choices: give up because the gap between your understanding of the words cannot be bridged, or back up and align your fundamental values to ensure that you are talking about the same things. Then work toward a shared understanding and ultimately, a solution.
That's where we are today in our political discourse. Seemingly similar rhetoric is obscuring a gap between fundamental values.
In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama used words and phrases that resonate with many Americans: American family, American dream, invest, and opportunity.
As an ongoing theme, Obama used various derivatives of the phrase "win the future" or "winning the future." He used these 10 times throughout his speech.
Laying out a path to "win the future" according to Obama: "The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. But if we want to win the future . . . we also have to win the race to educate our kids.
"The third step in winning the future is rebuilding America. Now, the final critical step in winning the future is to make sure we aren't buried under a mountain of debt . . . We can make the investments we need to win the future. We can't win the future with a government of the past."
This same phrase, "winning the future," was the title of a 2005 book written by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (my father).
The top five ways Gingrich laid out to "win the future" were:
- "Utilize America's Vast Energy Reserves."
- "Tax Reform to Favor Job Creation, Savings, Investment, Productivity, Research and Development."
- "Government Reform to Make Executive Branch Agencies Leaner, More Accessible and More Effective."
- "Education Reform to Emphasize Math and Science Learning."
- "Judicial Reform."
While both Gingrich and Obama are talking about winning the future, their visions are quite different. When Obama says invest, he means that the government should spend more taxpayer money and call it an investment.
When Gingrich says invest, he means create an environment where companies and people want to invest more private money.
When Obama says tax reform, he means government should tax the wealthy more. On the other hand, Gingrich follows more closely the Calvin Coolidge line of thought that government should tax less so the people have more.
These fundamental differences of view cannot be bridged with rhetoric because the values underlying these views are different — most importantly, the values that define the foundation of America.
Our Declaration of Independence not only declares this nation free, but also notes the source of our rights, our creator. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
But when talking about the founding of our nation during his State of the Union, Obama said, "We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea — the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny." No mention of rights, where they come from or God.
Obama mentioned faith, but not faith in God so much as the notions of unity and confidence: "We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people." Later, "I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers and promote American jobs." Finally, "We'll also work to rebuild people's faith in the institution of government."
Obama talked about the story of America as "the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future."
What he did not address is why we have dared to dream and why we are different — not as individual people, but together as an exceptional nation, created with the understanding that our rights come from God and are then loaned by us to our government.
It's time for us to back up and align our fundamental values to ensure that we are talking about the same things. Then we can work toward real solutions.