MONTEREY, Calif. (CN) – A Republican U.S. senator bemoaned the lack of bipartisanship in Washington while accepting an award over the weekend, saying the current political climate makes it more difficult than ever to reach across the aisle.
“It’s hard to find common ground these days,” said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. “It’s easier to go out and give the red meat speech and throw out criticisms rather than find consensus and being constructive. Yet that is exactly what our country needs more than ever.”
Portman accepted the Lincoln-Jefferson Award, which is distributed annually by the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.
Leon Panetta, who served in an array of public service positions including congressman, defense secretary, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and White House chief of staff, runs the institute along with his wife, Sylvia.
The couple has been giving awards to politicians they believe puts country before party while also trying to sow unity rather than discord in Washington.
On Saturday night, Panetta said America, despite its recent strife, can still lay claims to greatness.
“But that greatness cannot be achieved through anger, division, disunity,” Panetta said. “And there is no place for a lack of tolerance for others.”
The event, which also saw an award given to Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., was clearly a rebuke to President Donald Trump – though his name was never mentioned.
Even Portman, the Republican, acknowledged the United States’ standing in the world is not currently at its zenith.
“We continue to be the beacon of hope and opportunity around the world, I really believe that, but we’ve gotta polish that reputation, don’t we?” he told the audience.
Portman, like many of his colleagues in the Senate, has remained tepid about embracing Trump as the leader and face of the Republican Party.
He withdrew his support for Trump in early October 2016, after the “Access Hollywood” tape was released in which Trump admitted to inappropriate sexual behavior using vulgar language.
“While I continue to respect those who still support Donald Trump, I can no longer support him,” Portman – who campaigning for his Senate seat – said at the time.
Distancing himself from Trump in a state that Trump was expected to and eventually did carry could have been perilous for Portman. But he secured the endorsement of businesses and labor unions, and he ended up with a 21-point victory in Ohio.
Since then, Portman has emerged as a willing if cautious critic of the president, saying last month that Trump was “too defensive” about the Russia investigation.
The senator said Trump is the duly elected president and ought to shift the focus to how to prevent Russia and other hostile actors from compromising the United States electoral system.
“We ought to instead focus on the outrage that the Russians meddled in our elections, not just this last election. They did it long before Donald Trump. They’re going to do it long after Donald Trump, if we don’t do something about it. So we need to get to the bottom of it. And we need to go where the facts lead us,” he said last month on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Panetta said during Saturday night’s event that this type of even-keeled approach to divisive issues is more important than ever, as partisan acrimony has led many to become disillusioned with the political process.
While Panetta and Portman may believe there is pent-up demand for bipartisan governing, recent studies show that members of both political parties hold animosity toward the other parties at record levels.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center showed that for the first time since at least 1994, a majority of both parties have “very unfavorable” views of the opposing party. And the numbers are startlingly similar on both sides.
Moreover, the political climate shows no sign of abetting unity with the Trump administration in charge. And Republicans say former President Barack Obama made plenty of derogatory statements about them and their positions during his tenure, and they blame that as the flashpoint in the erosion of bipartisanship.
Whatever the cause, Portman said Saturday’s award will serve as a reminder to reach across the aisle and craft legislation that benefits all Americans, and not just a particular party.