Jon Huntsman

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

Panelists discussed the current state of American government and the influence of  extreme partisan divides at the "Can the Center Hold?" keynote discussion at the 2014 Tribune Festival on Saturday.

Former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley; Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China and Utah governor; former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; Ron Kirk, former U.S. trade representative and Dallas mayor; and Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta spoke on the panel, moderated by Evan Smith, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The Texas Tribune.

While the panelists have varying backgrounds and levels of experience in politics, they all agreed the current system of government is broken.

Bradley said the problem with today’s government is the partisan division in Congress.

“I don’t know a president who isn’t thinking like an executive,” Bradley said. “They want to get things done. The problem is Congress. You will never defeat power except by power.”

According to Hutchison, who currently serves as president of the Texas Exes alumni association, the party division in the Senate poses a problem.

“I think it is the polarization and the toxicity,” Hutchison said. “I think the Senate, which was very carefully crafted to be the adult in the room in the whole balance of powers, has lost that role. One of the things that protected that was, and this is a different issue, was the two-thirds rule and the 60 percent rules, where you really couldn’t do anything without a supermajority.”

Advocating for an open primary system in Texas, Hutchison also said she thinks the existing primary system in America is broken and contributes to the heavy party divide in Congress.

“If we are going to have the primaries the way they are today, in Texas especially, you do have the appeal to the very narrow primary voters,” Hutchison said. “People who want a different track need to vote in the primaries. Look at the competitive races you care about. You need to vote in that primary so you can ask for a broader appeal.”

According to Reed, the national division that exists between parties is not as prevalent on smaller governmental levels, making city government positions ideal for individuals who want to see action.

“The kind of hyper-partisanship that goes on nationally is not happening in cities, thank goodness,”  Reed said. “Because of that, you’re going to see more highly talented people put their energy and their passion into cities.”

According to Huntsman, who ran for president in the 2012 race but said he has no presidential aspirations for 2016, Congress' mentality needs to mirror that of city government.

“I would say part of our longer term fix is how do you change the culture, the ethos on capitol hill from anger, animosity and acrimony to problem solving?” Huntsman said. “In order to do that, you have to infuse in people who believe in problem solving and then give them something to do.”

Kirk said he thinks the rise in prominence of social media has caused a shift in political culture.

“I think the explosion of social media changes everything,” Kirk said. “We now all get a peek behind the curtains that we didn’t get before – giving more strength to those who are villains.”

Kirk also said the country ought to have a third, moderate party. 

Reed said he is optimistic that change will come.

“Just about every great revolution in the world was started by someone in their 20s or 30s,” Kirk said. “It wasn’t a bunch of 60-year-olds sitting around pontificating about how life used to be.”

Candidates prepare for months, sometimes years, to get ready. They give interviews in front of huge crowds of people to gain support. Intense focus is allocated for raising money through sponsors to pay for supplies for the long journey ahead. Entire staffs of people dedicate themselves to image control and maintenance: all outfits are picked out, every hair is in place and more time is spent on grooming than ever before. The competitors go against each other until, one by one, they’re forced out. Eventually, only one winner will survive.

No, I’m not talking about the movie with the biggest opening weekend for a non-sequel, The Hunger Games. The seemingly post-apocalyptic future described above is actually a depiction of what’s going on in this year’s Republican presidential primary race. The original field of nine — Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney — has narrowed itself down to three contenders. Really it’s more like two because who still thinks Gingrich has a chance?

As soon as things got bloody at the Cornucopia, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump were some of the first to go. They spent too much time slinging barbs at everyone else and not enough enough time gaining supporters. Pawlenty is another one that was ousted early, much like the girl in the woods minding her own business that was killed by the Careers.

And then, there was one candidate that somehow seemed less clownish than the others, Huntsman. He came in with experience. He didn’t spend time going negative with attack ads. He seemed rational and was the great hope of the entire race. His loss in New Hampshire felt like watching the beloved Rue get stabbed in the chest with a spear all over again.

Bachmann is a good representation of the crazy girl with the knives in The Hunger Games that no one was sad to see leave. Cain was taken out by some tracker jackers — women he allegedly sexually harassed that swarmed and fought back from his past. Perry seemed like he had a good shot for awhile, but was eventually his own worst enemy and poisoned himself, like the berries that killed Foxface, with his constant missteps and blunders.

Paul is an iconoclast and distances himself from the rest, like Thresh’s technique to hide in the wheat field. Also, like Thresh, Paul has strength in his group of ardent supporters; however, it’s not enough to win the election. Gingrich then becomes Cato in this story. Just like Cato, he attacks all opponents and tries to bully his way to the top. Fortunately for all of us, we know the demons from his past, or muttations, will make sure he doesn’t make it much further.

And then we’re left with Romney and Santorum, or Peeta and Katniss. Romney, like Katniss, is the clear stronger candidate left. And just like Peeta and Katniss, can we really trust anything either one says? Or do they only say what they think will keep them alive longer in this Hunger Games style primary race? It’s for this reason that Santorum has made anti-college statements, even though when he was a Senator in 2006 he called for all Pennsylvania citizens to have access to higher education. It’s why Romney derides “Obamacare,” but instituted universal healthcare in Massachusetts, or Romneycare first. Both candidates say whatever they think will get them the most support at the time, and it’s unclear what either one actually believes.

So no matter who’s left at the end, does anyone really win? Or will the candidate be forever haunted by the transformation he underwent to survive this process? And what about the rest of us? Will we elect a hero or someone who can’t keep it together when things get tough like Katniss?

And if this is what the race for President has come down to, are we any better than the people of Panem that tune in to watch the Hunger Games every year rather than doing something to demand change?

Taylor is a Plan II and rhetoric and writing senior.