Over the past couple of issues, I have been talking with a number of distinguished self-made individuals, from a generation when hard work meant something, who are going to be involved in June’s forum: Former President of the American League and Chancellor of the University of Kansas, Gene Budig; Mike Yanney, founder of America First Companies, one of the largest private investment banking firms in the Midwest with total assets in excess of $3.6 billion; and, for this issue, two-time former United States Senator Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska). Each of them emphasized that this type of open dialogue is not only critical for business, but also for government and international relations.
I have suspected for some time that this is the fundamental problem with American politics today. Both parties, for well over a decade, have become involved in a sort of battle royale as soon as the other is elected, without engaging in bipartisan conversations, much less cooperation. It’s as if their job is to take down the democratically elected opposition, as voted by the voice of the American people, instead of serving their electorates until the next election.
Having lived outside the US for five years, I’ve wondered if political stubbornness has become worse or if it’s just the way the media spins politics because it makes a better story. After speaking with Senator Nelson I’d say, unhappily, that my perception of American politics holds true.
Senator Nelson’s taste for politics first came when he was 17 years old. He ran for governor of his high school’s mock legislature and won. It was at that point, he tells me, that he set his ambitions on becoming Governor of Nebraska. “After that, I never expected not to run for governor. Whether I won or not was up to the voters but I knew I was going to be a candidate.
“I even told my wife when we first started dating that I was eventually going to run for governor. She just gave me that ‘yeah, right’ smile.”
Graduating with a law degree in 1970, Senator Nelson put his political ambitions on the back burner while he pursued a successful career in the insurance field, before entering the race for governor in 1990. “I had two percent name recognition but I managed to win the election.” He served for a second term, a feat not seen in over twenty years, before turning his ambitions toward becoming a US Senator.
Senator Nelson, with two terms as governor of Nebraska and two terms as a US Senator, believes he has something to offer the Monaco US Forum. “My background as governor combined both politics and business. I went on eight trade missions and increased exports from $800 million to $2.4 billion by the end of my second term.” On behalf of these official trips, Senator Nelson travelled to Asia, South America, Israel, Egypt, Germany and Cuba.
The senator also hopes that roundtables like the Monaco US Business Forum could lead to greater cooperation and understanding with Russia.
As far back as 1993, Senator Nelson worked with Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) to co-chair US dialogue with the Russian Federation. More recently, he’s developed good relations with Mikhail Margelov, the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation, who is also taking part in June’s forum in Monaco.
He describes those earlier times as being more optimistic but hopes that international forums can help ease tensions with Russia and lead toward a brighter future with the country; 2015 is “Year of Russia in Monaco”.
These days, one cannot associate Washington without the word partisanship. Senator Nelson admits that it’s worse now than it has ever been. “My frustration with politics came near the end of my career when gridlock stopped legislation.
“Things in Washington are very partisan right now and both parties have moved away from joint political efforts. I think the American people want a system that works.”
The US Senator believes that the system in Washington could change if politicians would do what they promised when elected instead of focusing on the next election as soon as they win their seat. “There has to be a change in the people who come to Washington. It can no longer be a profession to be a politician, and those elected must be committed to working and not obstructing. My mantra was that I would support the President, regardless of whether he was Republican or Democrat, when I could, oppose when I must, and try to offer constructive solutions in the process of representing my constituents in Nebraska.”
The proof of the senator’s bipartisan support lies in his political record: he was the leader of the Gang of 14 with Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). The Gang of 14 was a group of Republican and Democratic Senators in 2005 that successfully negotiated an agreement to avoid the deployment of the menacingly titled “Nuclear Option” over the use of the filibuster by Senate Republicans at the time.
And while these days Republicans seem to get the majority of the blame for bipartisanship, Senator Nelson says that this wasn’t always the case. “When I was there [in Congress], in 2001, we could find compromise in the Bush years.” He articulates that the situation has reached a point where it’s difficult for politicians to work for their constituents, adding that, “Compromise does not mean giving up on your ideals.”
This is why, in his opinion, platforms like the Monaco US Business Forum are necessary. “These events allow international dialogue, which is especially essential for politicians, military and business. It’s a way to find mutual recognition.”
I ask Senator Nelson whether he still thinks America is a good place to do business. Unlike politics, the senator sees a reason to be optimistic about the economy. “America is a better place to do business than it was a few years ago. Manufacturing is starting to come back due to the rising expense of manufacturing in China and lowered costs in the US. Plus, Americans have learned to do more with less. They’ve learned to streamline operations across all sectors.”
If only the politicians could do the same.