A Republican and a Democrat running for Congress walk into a room to discuss immigration.
One says we’ve got to find a pathway to citizenship to bring families out of the shadows. That bleeding-heart politician was… the Republican. The Democrat swiftly agrees.
That’s what happened during the amNew York/Newsday endorsement meeting with Queens Rep. Greg Meeks (D-St. Albans) and Republican challenger Michael O’Reilly.
After advocating for a physical wall on the southern border to increase security, O’Reilly added that he did not support “kicking down 11 million doors and kicking people out.” Broken borders were “our fault,” he said. For people who made it here and had established new lives, “they win.”
He pointed to the family who lives across the street from him in Broad Channel, who he said have lived there some 15 or 20 years but “did not come here legally.” Their son is 16, the same age as his son. He doesn’t speak Spanish. Should we “send them to South America?” he asked. “Ludicrous.”
It was one of various moments of agreement in a cordial conversation between political rivals. And for O’Reilly, an example of what it means to be a moderate Republican, so lost in this extreme election cycle.
Disagreeing without demonizing
Meeks is running for his 10th term in Congress, where he is a rank-and-file member of the Democratic Party. O’Reilly is a former Marine, airline pilot and current attorney making a start in politics.
Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10-1 in the 5th Congressional District, so it’s unlikely this will be a tight race.
But in other races both tighter or similarly lopsided this year, Republican candidates are taking the extreme positions of Donald Trump, their party’s presidential nominee, and embracing his ramped-up rhetoric and dogwhistling style. That has been true even in New York State, home of Nelson Rockefeller and Republicans who worked across party lines.
O’Reilly, who is married to a Colombian native, largely avoided that kind of bombast, opting instead for measured positions. He says Dodd-Frank’s banking regulations were an overreach — “treating a tumor with a shotgun” — but he supports closing the carried interest tax loophole, which allows investment income to be taxed at lower rates than regular income.
On the campaign trail, O’Reilly has at times fallen back on a challenger’s typical line of attack — accusing his opponent of inattention to the areas hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, and highlighting previous ethics investigations as indicative of the perennial legislator.
But sitting in a room together, they found more agreement than disagreement on local issues, like how to address excessive noise around Kennedy Airport, to national ones, where they found some common ground even on hotbutton themes like gun control.
Civil conversation is refreshing
For some voters who are tired of the status quo and incremental fights, watching centrist Democrats and Republicans air their miniature differences is evidence of the problem in politics — you need more radical changes to reshape the country in one form or another, and a little tug of war between well-funded, out-of-touch compatriots isn’t the way to go. This helps explains the support for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who promised big leaps and had some gaping differences with his opponent and colleagues.
It was also the false promise of the Trump campaign: that he would explode the ossified divide between the parties and present something entirely new. Instead he has presented something old and boorish — fear of the “other,” just in a newly nasty and naked form.
That attitude — divisive fear-mongering cloaked in an explosion of business as usual — has been adopted by some candidates down-ballot, as they struggle to either ride or harness the Trump wave. When the wave either breaks or becomes a victorious flood, what will happen to the mini-Trumps? Will they gather into a new Tea Party or will the moderates return?
When Meeks interrupted O’Reilly during a defense of President Ronald Reagan’s economic policies, O’Reilly deadpanned, “Now you sound like my presidential nominee.”
“He’s always saying, ‘Wrong!’” O’Reilly added. “Let’s not go there.”
“You’re right,” Meeks said, laughing.
If insults, interruption, and uninformed opinions are the other option, small differences between moderate, willing-to-horse-trade politicians is by far the better choice.