From left to right, Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

D.C.'s Bipartisanship Shop Has Names, But Needs More Victories

Jason Grumet talks about his seven years of wrangling top partisans to make it work. 

From left to right, Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet, left, with former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, says attracting politicians to the center has been easier than expected.

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With all the chatter about more civility being needed in Washington, bipartisanship has become quite the buzzword – it’s both a frustrating space and the place where everyone wants to be.

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, knows all about that. As his organization – the James Carville and Mary Matalin of Washington’s nonprofit world – turns 7 this month, Grumet knows where he’s seen success and where he hasn’t.

“Attracting really thoughtful and constructively aggressive people who want to work with us here has been easier than I thought,” Grumet admits, having pulled in former pols, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as recent senior fellows.

But getting substantial work done still seems to be a problem. The group will usually attach a big name to a project, which will eventually outline a bipartisan solution for that issue – whether it be nutrition, immigration or housing.

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“We’ve made gains – there’s a few places where we’ve been really proud of our accomplishments and they do require a bit …” Grumet tells Whispers, before trailing off. “You have to understand the way Washington works. We’ve been really involved in trying to make sure Congress doesn’t stumble over the edge and default on our debt." The group's health care framework was also very influential. Until it wasn't. "That remained a bipartisan process," Grumet recalls.

At its roots, the BPC began as a single energy-related project called the National Commission on Energy Policy. Former Sens. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., got on board early on. Soon former Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., got pulled into the fray, which meant that Grumet needed another Democrat. That would be former Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine., but getting him to join an untested policy shop would require a certain amount of stalking.  

“We had three corners of the table and Sen. George Mitchell was, by all interest, the person we wanted to join Sen. Daschle as the second Democrat and we had been reaching out to him through a few different channels … and we just were having a hard time connecting,” Grumet recalls.

Luckily, both Grumet and Mitchell were scheduled to attend a Clinton Global Initiative event in 2006, so Grumet used the opportunity to track the retired senator down.

“While I’m very comfortable testifying, the idea of knocking on the door of someone’s green room and saying, ‘excuse me Mr. Mitchell?’ … that’s not a place where my social courage is at its highest,” Grumet admits. “So I did kind of wander into the prep room and asked if anybody knew where Sen. Mitchell might be,” Grumet recalls.

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He lucked out again, meeting someone right off that bat that could connect him with Mitchell, who soon signed on as the fourth founder. “I had the badge, but I don’t think it was the right badge,” Grumet says. “And I was bringing the bipartisan threat.”

Since then, the BPC has grown to include all kinds of Washington names. After leaving the Motion Picture Association of America former Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan., got involved. It’s been a huge draw for former senators, especially those in leadership, including Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and former Majority Leaders Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn. 

Retired General Charles “Chuck” Wald, who now serves on the BPC’s board of directors, reached out to the group after reading its energy proposal and was recruited to be the center’s first military fellow.

“When [Wald] first came we were all appropriately a little intimidated, which was only enhanced by the fact that he only types in capital letters,” Grumet recalls. “After a week or so I summoned the courage to knock on his door and say, ‘Gen. Wald, that’s kind of the Internet version of shouting all the time.’ At which point he acknowledged that he didn’t really feel comfortable with the shift key,” Grumet says. (Today, Wald shifts with the best of them.) 

With its cast of political characters assembled and a slight change of tide in Washington (there was a budget, after all!) Grumet feels like things are looking up. “It’s just – once you’ve successfully solved real problems it’s kind of addictive,” he noted. He also thinks the tea party’s impact is diminishing. “Those insurgent movements very often lock things down for several years because they play by a different set of rules,” Grumet said. “And it takes a while to kind of metabolize those initiatives and bring them into constructive space – so I think that’s starting to happen.”

But for all this bipartisanship he talks, Grumet never wants to see Washington to be in full kumbaya mode. He never wants his organization to be obsolete. “In an ideal world – no,” Grumet says. “And the reason I say no is politics is a contact sport, this isn’t about everyone agreeing … we want constructive collision.”