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?

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.

Deep structural changes in American politics have brought us to this impasse. They include revisions in congressional rules that have made it easier for the party leadership to impose discipline on their members; the proliferation of interest groups of left and right; the resurgence of overtly partisan forms of media; and a generation-long ideological “sorting-out” of voters (driven largely by the increased prominence of cultural and foreign-policy issues) that has made each party’s electoral coalition much more homogeneous.

But especially in recent years, hyper-partisanship has also been driven and reinforced by the modern presidential campaign. Presidential elections are meant to be tough; they exist to sharpen and clarify differences. But the ever-extending duration of the campaign and the 24/7 intensity of the media coverage that surrounds it systematically encourage distortion and denigration. In theory, the longer campaign and intensified coverage might provide the candidates and the press with a greater chance to carefully explain the differences between the contenders. In practice, the need to break through the constant chatter and drive the daily media narrative—the imperative to win each news cycle—encourages the campaigns to portray policy disagreements as character flaws and to reduce the candidates’ differences to garish stereotypes (Plutocrat! Socialist! Warmonger! Appeaser!). Every campaign press secretary knows that a candidate can attract more media attention with a 30-second attack on his rival than with a 30-minute explanation of his own policies.

Months of this sniping tend to harden the country’s divisions and diminish the eventual winner’s ability to govern. Any goodwill that either nominee evokes among the supporters of the other at the start of the campaign is now reliably extinguished by the end. That dynamic was especially pronounced in 2000 and 2004, when the country was divided almost exactly in half between Bush and his Democratic opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry. The brutal tone and tenor of each of those campaigns—the Swift Boat accusations on one side, or the charges that Bush had knowingly lied to push America into war with Iraq on the other—left many (possibly most) Gore and Kerry supporters utterly disdainful of Bush, and vice versa. After each election, Bush took the oath of office with nearly half the country alienated from him. Bush compounded his problems with a uniquely polarizing style of governing, but Gore or Kerry, had either man won, undoubtedly would have entered office on an equally narrow ledge—facing as much suspicion and resistance from red America as Bush did from the voters in the Democratic coalition.

This year’s campaign has followed many of the peevish conventions of its recent predecessors. Seemingly anything said by anyone connected to either side can spark a firefight that rages across the Internet and the broadcast airwaves for a few hours, only to be succeeded by another eruption 24 hours later. Bloggers of left and right, belligerent talk-radio hosts, and wall-to-wall TV pundits (present company included) have amplified the daily campaign quarrels into an unrelenting background buzz of apparently unstinting conflict. The interest groups and commentators associated with each party have worked tirelessly to inflame their audiences against the other candidate. So, for instance, Arianna Huffington, the born-again liberal commentator, found a particularly contemptuous metaphor for the common liberal argument that McCain had sold his soul to conservatives. “Sure, she’s a whore,” Huffington wrote of McCain, “but she wears an abstinence promise ring and feels totally guilty when she stuffs the money in her bra, so she’s not like all the other whores.” Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh, the popular talk-radio host, was describing Obama as “a socialist,” “a fraud,” and an emasculated weakling. “He can’t take a punch, he’s weak, and he whines,” Limbaugh declared this spring. “I’m sure some women find that attractive because they would look at him as a little boy and would want to protect him … But it embarrasses me as a man.”

The candidates themselves have consistently jabbed at each other too, though with a notable difference in tone. Especially early in the campaign, Obama was more persistent in criticizing McCain than vice versa. But Obama’s language about his opponent generally has been restrained. He often calls McCain a “genuine American hero,” and his attacks—most often linking McCain with Bush—are seldom personal.

That’s emphatically not the case when McCain talks about Obama. McCain seems incapable of masking feelings about his younger opponent that border on disdain. He often says that Obama, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has “no experience on national-security issues.” In the spring, while pressing Obama to visit Iraq with him, McCain said he would use such a trip to “educate” his rival. In late May, when Obama voted for a bipartisan Senate proposal to increase benefits for veterans and insinuated that McCain had engaged in “partisan posturing” by opposing the bill as too expensive, McCain responded with a blistering two-page statement that said Obama possessed “less than zero understanding” of the issue. The statement accused Obama of “exploiting a thoughtful difference of opinion to advance his own ambitions”—“as he always does.” McCain then insisted that he would not accept criticism on an issue relating to veterans “from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform.” It was like responding to a spitball with a cruise missile.

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.

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.