What would happen if Republican America went on a road trip with
Democratic America…like, not theoretically, but really?
Let’s find out.
After participating in a veteran’s event together in San Antonio, Texas Reps. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, and Will Hurd, a Republican needed to get back to Washington D.C. for an important vote.
But there was one little problem: a major snowstorm….with the Capitol over 24 hours away by car.
So…why not just drive? Beto made the spur-of-the-moment suggestion they road trip it, instead of being stranded in Texas and missing the vote.
As NPR later put it, “It sounds like the beginning to a buddy comedy movie: Two congressmen, whose opposing parties couldn’t be more at odds right now, are stranded after their flights were canceled because of a snowstorm. In order to make it back to Washington, D.C., in time for votes, they rent a car and begin making the roughly 1,600-mile trek.”
In their rented Chevy Impala, they decided to let Americans ride along with them – and turn the moment into a lesson of sorts. As Beto told the Dallas Morning News, “At a time where so many people wonder whether our institutions still work, whether members of Congress still listen to the people they represent, whether a Republican and a Democrat can get along and work together. I thought, let’s try to prove the concept.”
Over the next two days, these congressmen-on-a-journey let people watch via Facebook video stream – having some fun with it along the way: “We have made a bipartisan decision to leave the Wendy’s line & go to ChickFilA” they intoned on Twitter under the hashtag: #CongressionalCannonballRun
They divulged their most embarrassing moments in Congress, talked about their first cars, and early girlfriends. Beto’s daughter, Molly, called in to talk with her dad, and Will’s dad called in to reminisce about the past.
Will and Beto rocked out to some Khalid (Location), Willie Nelson’s (On the Road Again), and, of course, Johnny Cash.
They even decided to get a Whataburger because “Whataburger unites us all.”
Will shared his iPhone password with his copilot, and the conversation even got into doughnuts (See a lot of the best moments catalogued by the El Paso Times here).
It wasn’t all silly or light, of course, with conversation also ranging from key political issues like healthcare, marijuana, foreign policy, Veterans Affairs and Russia’s alleged involvement in the presidential election. They discussed their shared opposition to a border wall asl well.
The response from the public was heart-warming. One person called it the “Best political story of the year.” Others said:
Whether they would make it to D.C. in time for the vote added some urgency: “On pins and needles for Congressmen Will and Beto. Will the make it to their votes?” said one person. Even Mark Zuckerberg chimed in, “Good luck making it back to D.C. in time!” (after which views for the video-stream skyrocketed)
And they made it! The El Paso Times summarized how the journey ended: “Their trip ended in a small blaze of glory at the Capitol steps, where they were met by a dozen people, a news crew and a man waving a Texas flag. They walked up the steps together, shook hands and went to cast their votes.”
But, of course, making it to D.C. in time wasn’t really the journey they completed.
Beto and Will weren’t that close before the trip since, as they acknowledged, they hadn’t really spent much time together. And as one outlet reported, they “started the drive a bit stiff.”
But then they spent a full 24 hours together in the car – after which the awkwardness of their disagreements was gone. As NPR reported, “by the end of their trip, the two were talking about having Thanksgiving together.”
The fact that more time together leads to more affection is not rocket science, but it is social science – as Gordon Allport found evidence many years ago that more contact between members of different groups reduces prejudice.
Beto remarked on the way up the Capitol steps after the trip, “I learned something — this is a guy I can work with,” O’Rourke said as they started to go into the Capitol. “It just happens that we’re on opposite sides of the aisle.”
Heartwarming moments aside, does any of this make any sort of practical difference? Well, two days after the cross-country trip, they agreed to sign onto legislation each other was sponsoring (an immigration bill for Beto and a law enforcement bill for Will).
Since the experience, both congressmen reflected on it further. Beto said, “Part of the reason that video, as goofy as it was or as boring as some of those portions may be, hit such a chord is … that civility that we rely on to make this democracy work has been absent.” He added, “In Will, I have found not just a very good friend but a partner. … We’ll vote differently on some significant issues but we will find the common ground.”
Beto also decried the “vitriol, hatred and tribalism” leading lawmakers to focus more on winning than helping the nation progress – calling it “inexplicable” that legislation to protect young Dreamers couldn’t even get a vote in the House despite overwhelming bipartisan support. “We have to be willing to have the debate … and we have to be willing to compromise, which has become the dirtiest of words up here.”
And here’s Will reflecting on CNN about the experience:
As Beto summarized, “There’s far more that unites us than divides us. And you know that when you actually spend time with your fellow Americans and don’t just read about them on Facebook or hear them described on Fox or MSNBC.”
Later that year, they were awarded the 2018 Prize for Civility in Public Life at the National Press Club – created to honor two public figures, one liberal and one conservative, who argue passionately but with civility for their beliefs. In giving the award, Allegheny College President James H. Mullen, Jr. said:
Their spontaneous demonstration of civility restored hope for many who have forgotten that political adversaries can discuss difficult issues with respect and civility, and that partisan jousting does not require demonization — and even can be engaged with joy.