Illustration by Richard Thompson
American voters nearly always elect a president who responds to the flaws they have found in his predecessor. Jimmy Carter was more honest than Richard Nixon; Ronald Reagan tougher than Carter; George H.W. Bush “kinder and gentler” than Reagan; Bill Clinton more in touch than Bush; George W. Bush more morally upright in his personal life than Clinton. In November, whether most voters pull the lever for John McCain or for Barack Obama, they’re likely to get a president who’s more competent than Bush. What’s less certain—but equally important—is whether they’ll get one who can be the uniter that Bush promised to be, rather than the divider he has been.
The public’s exasperation with the escalating partisan conflict and diminishing achievement in Washington roars through this year’s polls; discontent with the performance of both the president and Congress is at a record level. Both Obama and McCain have responded by centering their respective campaigns on a promise to reach across party lines and narrow the country’s partisan and ideological divisions. Each says he intends to be the president of all of America, not half of it. And each says he is committed to treating his opponent and his opponent’s party with respect. Through the long primary season, I often heard from voters convinced that an Obama-McCain race would avoid the sniping that drives most modern campaigns and set a respectful tone that could help the winner govern after November. “An Obama-McCain debate would be healthy for the world,” Patsy Petit, a McCain supporter, insisted to me just before the New Hampshire primary last January.
In many ways, the first stages of the Obama-McCain race have offered little to justify this optimism. Every day produces a drumbeat of attacks from each side against the other. As a political commentator, I get 20 or 30 e-mails a day from the two campaigns and their surrogates—all hoping to find their way into my coverage of the race. Respect and reconciliation are not the words they conjure.
On the morning after Obama clinched the Democratic nomination in June, for example, the Republican National Committee had by 9:10 a.m. distributed three e-mails criticizing him, including two with the subject lines “Obama’s Weak Finish” and “Obama’s Pander Pivot.” The McCain campaign had piled on with a release denouncing Obama’s views on Iran. By 10 a.m., the Democratic National Committee had issued two releases jabbing McCain over his ties to President Bush, and the McCain campaign had announced a conference call (with, among others, independent Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000) to press the attack on Obama’s posture toward Iran. By 11:17 a.m., the Obama campaign had fired back with a release attacking Lieberman over his votes on Iran. And so it went throughout the day; the e-mails pinged back and forth like volleys in a tennis match. By the time of the day’s last release (from the RNC at 10:58 p.m.), the RNC and the McCain campaign had sent about two dozen more salvos criticizing Obama (nine linking Obama to fund-raiser Tony Rezko, who’d just been convicted on corruption charges); and the Obama campaign, the DNC, and groups affiliated with the Democrats had posted about a dozen more releases criticizing McCain (including a flurry accusing him of “outright deception,” “misstatements and distortions,” and a “willingness to mislead the American people”). “This ain’t going to be no civil campaign,” says Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and one of McCain’s closest Senate allies. “I mean, come on—a lot’s at stake.”
The tension between each candidate’s desire to hold the high ground and the extraordinary pressure to go negative—especially as Election Day looms—will be one of the central dynamics in this fall’s campaign. Over the past decade, unconstrained partisanship has debilitated Washington and prevented the federal government from addressing the country’s most pressing problems. This election offers a real possibility—the first in many years—for a de-escalation of the partisan arms race. But this possibility will recede if the presidential campaign turns as toxic as the last two.
From the final years of Bill Clinton’s presidency through Bush’s two bruising terms, American politics has been polarized as sharply as at any point in the past century. Party-line voting in Congress hasn’t been so prevalent since the days of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. In the history of modern polling, Republican and Democratic voters have never held such disparate views of a president’s job performance as they do of Bush’s.
“Hyper-partisanship” is how the Republican strategist Ken Mehlman aptly describes the current political environment. Its price is a paralyzing inability to confront the most difficult problems facing the nation: health care, global warming, energy independence, immigration, entitlement reform, and the path forward in Iraq. On these controversial issues, meaningful progress is virtually impossible without bipartisan support. Indeed, the three most ambitious domestic-policy initiatives of the past 15 years—Clinton’s attempt to provide universal health care, in 1993; Newt Gingrich’s effort to remake the federal budget, in 1995; and Bush’s drive to redesign Social Security around private investment accounts, in 2005—all failed for the same reason: in each case, the authors were unable to attract any meaningful support for their ideas outside their own coalition, in the country or in Congress.
Party-line legislation fails when the stakes are highest, because neither party is comfortable making big, difficult changes without at least some political-risk-sharing from the other side. And of course some bipartisan support is usually necessary to garner the 60 Senate votes required to break a filibuster. What’s more, legislation that is passed on a party-line basis typically contains a structural flaw—it cannot incorporate ideas that divide the majority party’s coalition, which means that many policy tools are left out because they are ideologically impure. As a result, we are asked, for example, to choose between energy legislation that either focuses almost solely on new drilling or tilts overwhelmingly toward conservation and subsidizing renewable energy. This is like trying to cut a piece of paper with one scissor blade. Politically and substantively, progress is typically unlikely without both.