Nonpartisan, Public Education, That's It

Blog Post
Friday, May 17, 2019

“This is public education, about fiscal responsibility, that’s it,” said Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert L. Bixby in describing the organization. “That’s what we do on a nonpartisan basis.”

Bixby said Concord’s founders wanted it to be grassroots and oriented toward public education because there were already plenty of think tanks in Washington. “The Concord Coalition has always maintained the focus of being beyond the Beltway.”

During the latest Facing the Future, Bixby and Concord Communications Director Steve Winn discussed the organization’s history, how the fiscal responsibility conversation has changed over the years, and the importance of reaching more young people.

Concord was founded by Peter G. Peterson, a former U.S. secretary of commerce, together with two men who had served in the U.S. Senate: Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) and Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) Bixby said the collaboration came out of Tsongas’ presidential campaign in which he had emphasized fiscal responsibility and had seen that people outside of Washington were really concerned about the growth of the national debt.

After seeing Rudman and Tsongas do a joint interview on television from the Colonial Inn in Concord Massachusetts, Peterson pitched the idea of The Concord Coalition.

Bixby thought Rudman and Tsongas made a great pair. Tsongas had a way of looking at you that could make you feel guilty about the debt and deficit, Bixby said, while Rudman could take the moral high ground and scare you into caring.

Both men were candid. That’s why people were attracted to them, Bixby said, but also “maybe why neither one of them became president,” he said. “I loved working with them.” (All three Concord co-founders are deceased.)

Bixby began as a volunteer and is the longest-tenured staff member in the organization’s history.

Concord has engaged in many initiatives over the years, including a zero-deficit plan in the early 1990s, a national-debt clock that was taken around the country, and a “Fiscal Wake-up Tour” in partnership with other organizations.

Like any organization, Concord needs to keep its message current and evolve as it looks to the future, Bixby said. The tactics of the 1990s and early 2000s are not the best methods to communicate with the public now.

The message is still the same, he said, but a key challenge is reaching the Millennial generation and even younger people, and explaining why the nation’s fiscal challenges are important issues for their future.

Winn discussed the rise of digital media but expressed concern about the declining readership of newspapers and their editorial pages.

“That’s a tremendous loss for trying to convey to people complex issues,” he said. Many newspaper reporters and editors around the country are interested and knowledgeable about fiscal policy issues, but their papers are suffering from falling circulation numbers and financial difficulties.

Winn also said that amid false claims and widespread misinformation, a good editorial board can really help a community by fact-checking and taking in-depth looks at issues.

“Those organizations have the credibility to help people with sorting through all the stuff that they may run into on the internet,” he said.

Bixby said social media is very good at promoting instant, emotional reactions, but it is not great for getting into the nuance of serious issues. With a newspaper editorial board, you can have a longer conversation in which the journalists can challenge assumptions and their visitors can respond with arguments and data.

“I still think that sort of give-and-take exchange is really important, and I do worry about the trend away from that,” he said.

Winn agreed that there are positives and negatives to the rise of digital media. On the positive side, he noted how much more accessible information is and how quickly we can get it.

“The kind of information that we can have at our fingertips, I think younger people may take for granted a little bit,” he said, recalling his earlier years as a journalist who was not based in the nation’s capital. “Years ago,” he said, “if I wanted a CBO report, someone in Washington had to mail it to me.”  

Hear more on “Facing the Future.” I host the program each week on WKXL, NHTalkRadio.com (N.H.), and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, elected officials and candidates for public office. Past broadcasts are available here. You can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play or through RSS.