Reconcilable Differences

Obama and McCain both say they want to usher in a new, less divisive brand of politics. Which of them has the better chance? Is bipartisanship still possible?

McCain allies such as Rick Davis, the campaign manager, insist that the senator respects Obama and that his sharp tone merely reflects his competitive nature. But John Weaver, who served as chief political strategist in McCain’s 2000 campaign and again early in the 2008 campaign before being forced out in a power struggle with Davis, says McCain “does lack respect” for Obama, largely from the conviction that “he’s not ready, he’s green.” Weaver, like other observers, thought McCain’s attitudes about Obama stood in contrast with his personal respect for Hillary Clinton. “All campaigns reflect the personality of the candidate,” Weaver said. “The problem [our campaign] had in 2000 is, we made emotional decisions. Got wrapped up in the bubble. That’s a reflection of John. He at times makes emotional decisions, and when he does, they are almost always a mistake. That’s what you see right now. You’ve got to resist this decision-making in a bubble, being angry at Obama, or personalizing it … That’s a danger.”

Weaver believes that McCain can win the election only by running an elevated campaign, though he acknowledges, “I am a minority in my party and peer group.” And if McCain “does win in a campaign in which they’ve had to basically destroy Obama in order for him to eke out a narrow victory and then he goes and faces a Congress that is going to be back in pre-Reagan numbers for the Democrats, it is going to be impossible to govern. I know it’s in John to run [an elevated] campaign,” Weaver says, “because I know he’s running to govern, but is he going to be able to do that? Or are the darker forces going to prevail?”

Predictably, the daily fusillade from each side has divided and hardened public opinion about McCain and Obama. When the election year began, each man generated unusually positive reactions outside his own party, according to surveys by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. But by spring, both men had seen their favorability ratings decline substantially among independents and voters in the opposite party.

That trend would seem to doom this election to the same trajectory as the previous two, with the eventual winner facing crippling hostility from almost half the country when he assumes office. But that may not be inevitable. For all the conflict they have endured and provoked, Obama and McCain are striking enough offsetting notes to make it difficult for each to demonize the other. Each frequently makes a point of reminding audiences about the shared values that connect Americans; McCain even delivered an entire speech this spring arguing that the relationship between two of his home state’s legendary legislators, the late Mo Udall and the late Barry Goldwater—the former a liberal Democrat, the latter a conservative Republican—should reassure Americans that we “have so much more that unites us than divides us.” McCain and Obama have each pledged, if elected, to consider officials from the other party when naming the Cabinet. “I am certain that there will be bipartisan representation in his Cabinet,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, says flatly.

Each candidate also has already appeared before audiences that his party often shuns (for example, Obama spoke at an AIDS conference organized by evangelical megachurch leader Rick Warren in 2006, and McCain visited Selma, Alabama, and the decaying blue-collar Democratic stronghold of Youngstown, Ohio, this spring). Each is promising to run more of a national campaign than his predecessors did, and each is contesting states his party has often conceded. And each has quickly and consistently rebuked supporters who criticize the opponent in excessively personal terms (such as the liberal talk-show host who called McCain a “warmonger” and the conservative who stressed Obama’s middle name of “Hussein” when introducing McCain at a rally).

Because both men are balancing their daily criticisms of the other with these inclusive signals, each may succeed more than Bush did at keeping a foot in the door to those who ultimately prefer the other candidate. That would allow either to emerge from this election with the opportunity to build broader coalitions than Bush has done or than Bill Clinton managed to do after 1997. The next question is whether either man would seize that opportunity.

To reach agreements that attract support beyond their own party, politicians usually must make concessions that antagonize interests within it. In the Senate, McCain has often passed that test, partnering with Democrats on several intensely controversial issues, including the “patient’s bill of rights,” campaign-finance reform, preserving the filibuster for judicial appointments, comprehensive immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and global warming. In each of those fights, he accepted severe criticism from conservatives in and out of Congress as the price of building legislative alliances with Democrats. “McCain has demonstrated the fact that he’ll charge ahead and he’ll stay with it, even if he is taking lots of incoming,” says Frank Sharry, the former director of the National Immigration Forum, a generally liberal group that supported the reform legislation. “He takes risks to produce breakthroughs on big issues.”

As president, would McCain take as many risks as he did in the Senate to assemble inclusive coalitions? Many Democrats, noting McCain’s concessions to conservatives in this campaign, believe the answer is no. His high-profile bipartisan partnerships (which multiplied after he returned to the Senate, disillusioned and angry, in the wake of his 2000 presidential-primary defeat by Bush) always coexisted with an overall record that placed him in concert with conservatives, and in collision with Democrats, on most issues. On his way to the GOP nomination, McCain moved demonstrably to the right; his 2008 campaign agenda includes conservative priorities certain to provoke intense Democratic opposition, such as extending Bush’s tax cuts and overriding state regulation of health insurance. And McCain has taken an uncompromising position on Iraq, insisting that he will maintain American troops there until the country achieves stability.

Tom Daschle, the Democrats’ former Senate leader from South Dakota and a senior Obama adviser, knows McCain well enough to have engaged in talks with him in 2001 meant to encourage McCain to leave the GOP and join the Democratic caucus as an independent. Daschle says the complexity of McCain’s record and the volatility of his personality make it difficult to predict whether McCain would govern as a uniter or a divider. “There are sort of two John McCains,” Daschle said. “There is the conciliatory deal maker and pragmatist that he can be. There is the hard-core, hard-line ideologue that he can be as well. If the latter becomes the dominant McCain [in the White House], I think that much of what we’ve experienced in these last eight years will be repeated. If he decides to use the most pragmatic approach, then I think there are tremendous opportunities to work together.”

The likelihood that Democrats will control both chambers of Congress in 2009—and almost certainly by increased margins—would shape McCain’s choices. It would mean he could get legislation passed only by reaching agreement with the Democrats in the congressional majority, the same equation that faced Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and for the final six years of his presidency, Ronald Reagan. That would encourage conciliation and deal-making, especially on issues such as climate change, immigration, and conceivably health care, where McCain has shown some willingness to break with his party’s orthodoxy. Of course, it might also provoke McCain’s more combative side on spending, taxes, and above all, the Iraq War.

McCain is a politician of stormy personal passions, and a McCain presidency would likely offer a roller coaster of cooperation and conflict. He probably would replace the permanent warfare between Bush and the Democratic Congress with hairpin turns in mood from day to day, if not hour to hour. He could treat a Democratic Congress as a legislative partner or an electoral foil—or, most likely, as some of both.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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