Gutmann, Cohen, and Rendell talk politics in Fels course

Students in a “Topics in Government” class were recently treated to a lively conversation with three esteemed experts on politics and government—former Philadelphia mayor, Pennsylvania governor, and course professor Ed Rendell, his former press secretary, campaign manager, and chief of staff David L. Cohen, and Penn President Amy Gutmann.

For the final regular meeting of Rendell’s Fels Institute of Government course on electoral politics, he invited Gutmann and Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast and chairman of the University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees, to present to a packed Claudia Cohen Hall classroom. Cohen has spoken to each of Rendell’s classes during the former governor’s tenure as a Penn professor. They are both University alumni.

“We’ve talked a lot about campaigns and how to campaign, but tonight we’re pivoting off Dr. Gutmann’s book about how campaigning has made it very difficult for us to have a governing process where there are compromises that are necessary to make government function,” Rendell said.

Rendell’s course is designed to examine the science of getting elected in the modern campaign climate, focusing special attention on the 2014 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. He tasked Gutmann and Cohen with answering the question: Do modern campaigns make bipartisan governing more difficult?

Cohen opened the discussion by examining the different challenges campaigns impose on federal, state, and local government.

“I bring a very harsh and cold reality to what’s going on [in government] because I really do live this—whether I like it or not—every day,” Cohen said. “But as dysfunctional as government is, there is still a lot of functional government, and a lot of it is at the state and local levels.”

Cohen noted that there is “something ultimately destructive about the permanent campaign”—a concept Gutmann discusses in her most recent book, “The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It,” which was co-written by Harvard professor Dennis Thompson and was required reading for Rendell’s course.

“The problems get more difficult as you get to the higher levels of government,” Gutmann said. “We need to ask, ‘How was our country conceived and created?’ It was through the pitfalls and promise of compromise.”

Gutmann further explained that due to the nature of modern campaigning—including factors such as the 24-hour news cycle—bipartisan governing is increasingly becoming more difficult, but not impossible.

“Why can’t [government officials] compromise? Welcome to the era of the permanent campaign where every day is, in effect, Election Day. Because even when you’re not campaigning you have the ideology of the uncompromising mindset, which is to demonize your opponents and show that you are standing on principle,” she said. “But if the permanent campaign makes bipartisan government impossible, then we shouldn’t be encouraging all of you to go into public office except to change things. I happen to think it’s possible.”

Gutmann suggested six factors that have the power to increase incentives for bipartisan governing in the current political climate: better relationships in government, open primaries, lowering voting barriers, mobilizing moderates, media profiles in governing, and better civic education.

The presentations were followed by a Q&A session, during which students had the opportunity to candidly question the three panelists. Topics of discussion included everything from campaign finance structure and leadership styles, to filibuster abuse and the economy’s effect on base polarization.

“If you’re a whiz at getting elected, as Ed was and is, but you don’t know how to govern, there’s nothing of public good that will come of that,” Gutmann said.

Amy Gutmann David Cohen Ed Rendell