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?

Obama as president would face a very different situation. An Obama victory almost certainly would enlarge the Democratic House and Senate majorities and diminish the already attenuated ranks of Republican moderates who might be open to working with him. In that scenario, both the gain of Democrats and the loss of centrist Republicans would increase demands for Obama to pass his program by maximizing unity among Democrats and minimizing outreach to Republicans. The bigger the victory, the stronger the pressure to marginalize GOP legislators and push uncompromising policies.

In such an environment, would Obama still fulfill his campaign promises “to bring together Republicans and Democrats” to solve problems? Some allies are confident: Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a conservative Democrat who endorsed Obama early this year, says that Obama’s commitment to dialogue with rogue nations abroad reveals something about the approach he would take at home. “You see in Obama somebody who is willing to take heat and criticism for wanting to talk to our enemies,” Nelson said. “If he has that approach, you know very well that he is willing to talk to the other side” in Congress. Sharry, the former head of the National Immigration Forum, believes the senator from Illinois would bring to the presidency the same unusual combination of qualities that Ronald Reagan did: the ability to mobilize the public for change and the willingness to cut deals with both parties in Congress to achieve it.

But in Washington, Obama has been much more cautious than his rhetoric suggests about working with Republicans or challenging Democrats to reach bipartisan agreements. Since arriving in the Senate, in 2005, he has voted with a majority of Senate Democrats almost 97 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly. (McCain has voted with a majority of Republicans 85 percent of the time since entering the Senate, in 1987.) And although Obama has sometimes worked with Republican senators to pass legislation, he’s done so primarily on relatively noncontroversial issues, such as a bill to post government contracts online.

Even in his presidential-campaign proposals, Obama has stepped carefully. He has ruffled some feathers by emphasizing personal responsibility in the African American community, and in July he infuriated the liberal “netroots” by voting for a congressional deal that provided legal immunity to telecommunications companies that had cooperated with Bush’s program of warrantless wiretapping after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But little of his agenda departs from conventional Democratic preferences. Initially he declared that to stabilize Social Security, “everything should be on the table,” including benefit cuts, but he’d renounced that position by last September. He has similarly diluted his earlier support for merit pay for teachers. He pointedly refused to join Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in crossing organized labor to propose requiring individuals to buy health insurance—though such a requirement is probably the key to a deal with the health-insurance industry for universal coverage. Lindsey Graham, like other Republicans, sees all this as evidence that Obama is unwilling to take the heat from allies that’s required to reach consensus with opponents on difficult questions. “Nothing changes up here unless you make somebody [on your side] mad,” says Graham, who has done just that on an array of issues. “I can’t think of a time when he’s made anybody mad.”

Still, if Obama wins, he will also face significant incentives to try to work cooperatively with Republicans and the interests they represent. If Democrats gain more House and Senate seats in November, many are likely to come from Republican-leaning territory. The approaches Obama would need to take to keep conservative Democrats loyal on energy, health care, or spending might not differ much from those he’d take to attract the first few moderate Republicans.

David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, agrees that big Democratic gains would pose “a challenge to the goal of bipartisanship,” but he predicts that a President Obama would resist pressure for a purely partisan governing strategy. “If there’s an enhanced Democratic majority, I think that he’s going … to urge a special sense of responsibility to try and forge coalitions around these answers, not because we won’t be able to force our will in many cases, but because, ultimately, effective governance requires it in the long term,” Axelrod said. “I think he would be a mediating force against those who suggest that we should simply overrun the other side on issue after issue.”

Axelrod isn’t speaking from altruism. He recognizes that a President Obama might quickly alienate many votersif Washington were to remain a war zone in 2009. So does Daschle: “Barack has put so much into this notion that we ought to be reducing the polarization, reducing the confrontation—for him not to make it a central part of his administration would be a big mistake.” Obama would need to look back only as far as Bill Clinton’s first two years to see the risks in reverting to a more partisan strategy. Clinton ran in 1992, much as Obama and McCain are running this year, on a pledge to transcend “brain-dead politics in both parties.” Instead, Clinton’s first two years were convulsed by ferocious conflict between the parties. That was partly because congressional Republicans, convinced that George H. W. Bush’s deviations from the conservative faith had triggered his defeat, pursued a militantly obstructionist strategy against Clinton on many issues. But Clinton compounded his problem with an initial agenda that oscillated between ideas that advanced his promise of a fresh “third way” and others that stamped him as the champion of a more partisan and conventionally liberal approach (such as his numbingly complex and overly bureaucratic health-care plan). Democratic congressional leaders, confident that their large majorities would enable them to pass Clinton’s program on a partisan basis, added to his difficulties by persuading him to delay or downplay centrist initiatives, including campaign-finance and welfare reform, that divided their members. That diminished Clinton’s credibility as a reformer, another central element of his 1992 message. The bill for these miscalculations came due in the 1994 election, when Clinton’s turns toward the left inspired a huge conservative turnout, and the image of ineffectiveness and conflict in the capital alienated the center. The result was a Republican landslide that swept the GOP to control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in four decades.

A president who chooses compromise will inevitably confront obstruction from many people in the other party and discontent from the most-ideological elements in his own. Those are formidable obstacles to a more inclusive and productive politics. But Bush’s failure has highlighted the fact that, ultimately, presidents who divide rarely conquer, and it has created an enormous opportunity for his successor to reshape the contours of American politics. Today the American political system is more polarized than the American people; a president who can deliver pragmatic legislation on big issues might cement the allegiance of the millions of voters who are disenchanted with Washington’s failures and not tightly bound to either party. The opportunity to build a lasting majority would be greater for Obama than for McCain, because of the damage Bush has done to the GOP’s image. But either man could strengthen his party by redefining it as more flexible, inclusive, and practical than it is seen to be today. More important, he could remind Americans, as Theodore Roose­velt once put it, that their “common interests are as broad as the continent.” And that could be the key to progress on all of the problems—from health care and energy to the economy and national security—that will await the next president in January 2009.

Presented by

Ronald Brownstein is the political director for Atlantic Media Company and the author of The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America, out this month in paperback. More

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

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