David Boren has had, by any standard, an illustrious career. He was governor of Oklahoma. He spent 16 years as a United States Senator. He served as chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence longer than any other member of the Senate. Yet, he walked away from one of the most powerful leadership positions in one of the most power bodies in the world. He has spent the last 14 years as President of the University of Oklahoma.
Boren is part of Oklahoma’s first family. His father served in the U.S. House of Representatives and his son Dan serves there today. Boren left the Senate with 2 years remaining in his third term, in part because of the growing partisanship that made his work in government distasteful.
The concerns that forced Boren from public office have grown in the 14 years that followed. In his new book A Letter to America, Boren proposes a blueprint for keeping America on track as a leading world power.
The book implores readers to look realistically at the world order. America has only 6-percent of the world’s population. China and India have five times as many people as the U.S. Their economies will soon equal America’s economy. Unfortunately, America has also squandered the good will earned following World War II and enhanced immediately after 9/11. All of this adds to the urgency of Boren’s writing.
Boren’s most passionate writing is conveyed in his call for reform in campaigns and elections. Boren left the Senate due to the partisan backbiting that created gridlock in the Congress. That was 14 years ago. Matters have grown far worse.
The author points to the bipartisanship that followed WW II to illuminate his concerns for today. What if our current Democratic President and Congress proposed something like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Germany after the war. Imagine the GOP talking points, “The Democrats want to tax you to help the very people who killed and wounded our fathers and sons.” Instead, in 1945 and 1946 GOP leaders supported the plan to rebuild our former enemies.
Boren proposes a couple of things to address the incivility in public life. First create a commission to redistrict congressional districts. Take that authority away from partisan state legislatures. An independent commission would structure districts that are representative of the people they serve. Second, create campaign reform that would reduce out-of-district special interest money. Require that campaign contributions come from people who live in the district.
One thing missing from Boren’s reform package was term limits. During a recent visit to the Chautauqua Institution in New York, I had the chance to talk with Boren about the role of term limits in his plan for reform. Boren said without reservation, “I’m not convinced that term limits are a good thing.” Boren felt that legislative bodies need some historic perspective that only veteran lawmakers bring to the table. He believes that other reforms (redistricting and finance) will push out poor legislators and will not subject good legislators to arbitrary removal.
In A Letter to America, Boren also suggests that the president institutionalize bipartisan mini-cabinets made up of congressional leaders from both parties. He implores moderate legislators to form bipartisan caucuses and he wishfully suggests electing an independent president who would form a multi-party cabinet fashioned after Churchill’s war cabinet of WW II.
The book also sets forth five things that America can do to insure its place among national powers. First, better understand the rest of the world, through study abroad beyond the borders of Europe. Second, understand the goals that unite countries. Third, reconstruct our intelligence system for a post-cold war world. Fourth, cooperate with the rest of the world to meet environmental challenges, and finally create a military force of leading countries to police the world and respond to crisis.
While Boren also writes about the country’s economic health or more aptly, our unhealthy economy and gives equal time to our failing education system or as he puts our failing memory—history study has fallen out of vogue—I want to focus some attention on his chapter titled, “Our Disappearing Middle Class.”
Boren bemoaned the fact that more members of the middle class have dipped into the ranks of the working poor or those in throes of poverty. He wrote that in 2005, the income for the top 1-percent of the richest American’s grew by 14-percent, while the average income for 9 out of 10 American’s dipped by 6-percent. He proposes a more progressive tax structure, expansion of federal education grants and health care for the uninsured.
Boren’s A Letter to America contains an ambitious plan for sustaining America. If America is to continue to be a world superpower we need ambitious plans. America needs to dream big and Boren provides a blueprint as a first step toward making those dreams come true.