According to one count by the New York Times, more than 1,600 political podcasts have gone on air since the 2016 presidential election. The vast majority of them, however, are preaching to the choir.
“We were having a hard time finding podcasts that featured both sides actually talking to each other,” said Mary Kate Cary, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.
That’s how she and fellow presidential speechwriter Paul Orzulak – a Democrat who worked for President Bill Clinton – ended up sitting opposite each other every Thursday at Chatter Bar and Grill, a Washington watering hole and part-time recording studio owned by ESPN talk show host Tony Kornheiser.
There, as city buses trundle by the studio’s glass windows and patrons clink glasses in the room next door, the Republican and the Democrat record their “Bipodisan” podcast, trying as hard as they can to find common ground on the issues of the day.
Cary and Orzulak, who have known each other for more than a decade, met as guest commentators on television talk shows that appreciated their insider knowledge and common-sense approach to bipartisan discourse. They decided to create their podcast, which launched in January, because they were increasingly disturbed by how each side vilified the other after the election.
“We are both pretty passionate advocates for our side of an issue,” Cary said. “Sometimes that means agreeing to disagree. Sometimes one person might change their mind. But, we always at least try to see things from the other side.”
Occasionally the two are joined by special guests, including regulars Jean Card, a former speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration, and Moe Vela, a senior adviser to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden.
More than occasionally, the debates can get very tense.
Cary remembers heated discussions of President Trump’s travel ban curbing immigration from seven countries and of NFL players’ protests during the national anthem. Orzulak said recent discussions on immigration, especially on the heels of public outcry showing families separated at the border, were very emotional as well.
However, some discussions went surprisingly well. For example, the pair were able to find a lot of common ground on gun control, which they addressed shortly after the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 high school students and staff.
“For that show, we decided that each of us would come prepared with a list of reforms that we thought the other side would agree to,” said Cary, who is a gun owner. “It was different than our own wish list, of course, but it was a starting point.”
By the end of the episode, they realized they agreed on several potential reforms. For example, both are in favor of gun violence restraining orders, which would allow friends or family members to seek a court order temporarily removing firearms from someone they feel is a threat, similar to a domestic violence restraining order. Various versions of the law are already in place in several states.
“I like the idea as a conservative because it is not punishing law-abiding guns owners,” Cary said. “Paul also liked it because it gets guns out of the hands of people who should not have guns.”
Whatever the issue, Cary and Orzulak always approach each other as people, not political operatives, and try to understand where the other side is coming from.
“For one show, each of us started by pretending we were the other person, giving a good-faith analysis of what that party’s position was, without making fun of it,” Cary said. “That was helpful. I also always try to go back to principles we both believe in, such as freedom of speech. We may look at it in different ways, but both of us agree it is a bedrock value of our society.”
Orzulak said starting each episode with a personal story is also useful. When they discussed immigration, each host shared how their families came to the United States. Sometimes, they just start with a random story from their childhood, or something funny that happened to them that week.
“Too often, we tend to approach people as political people first, labeling them pro-life, pro-choice, pro-gun, whatever, and then digging in on that position,” Orzulak said, noting that is especially common on social media. “The more we can encounter each other as people, instead of political people, the better those conversations go.”
Cary agreed, pointing out that the Congressional workweek – shortened by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to three days so members can return to their home district most weekends – means more and more politicians do not interact socially with members of the opposite party.
“When George H.W. Bush was in office, he often had Democrats over for cocktails, barbeques or movie nights, or tried to place Republicans and Democrats next to each other at state dinners,” Cary said. “As time has gone on, that has happened less and less, and members of Congress are leaving town on the weekends, not buying homes in D.C., going to church together, or meeting at their kids’ schools.”
Such separation – whether between politicians in Washington or commentators in an online forum – makes it a lot easier to see someone as a caricature and treat them only as a stereotype, Orzulak said.
“When you can replace that caricature with a real person, often the caricature disappears,” he said.
Ultimately, Cary and Orzulak hope that their podcast is one starting point among many for debates they both believe are critical to the country’s future. They are especially eager to reach America’s youngest voters and have already done one “Bipodisan” show at a D.C.-area high school. They hope to do several more events at colleges this fall, including events in the works at the Miller Center.
“I want to encourage students and young people to come to these issues honestly, seeing other people as people, not as caricatures,” Orzulak said. “If they can do that, this generation might be able to get us back on track.”
That marks at least one more area of agreement with Cary, who said getting to know the show’s interns has been the “most heartwarming” part of the process for her.
“There is a hunger in young people to hear the other side, even if they don’t agree. They just want to know and understand the other side’s position,” she said.
“That is what gets me out of bed in the morning. The younger generation realizes that politics does not have to stay the way it is right now.”