Michael Oreskes writes a well-reasoned piece that deserves coverage and thought.
Now the 2008 election seems likely to signal a final transition from the Reagan era. A simple view is that orthodox Reaganism has come crashing down in the troubled presidency of George W. Bush. But that would be to miss several larger tides of politics and opinion. For one thing, there is the difference between Mr. Reagan himself and some of his successors. Mr. Reagan, for all the clarity of his beliefs, was also a pragmatist, usually willing to negotiate (whether the man on the other side of the table was Tip O’Neill or Mikhail Gorbachev). Some of his political followers — Mr. McCain is not a bad example — adopted his ideology and his pragmatism. But others took the ideology without Mr. Reagan’s flexibility, or his charm, an approach captured by the title of Tom DeLay’s memoir, “No Retreat, No Surrender.”
So in the 1990s the partisan warfare deepened. The central political figures of that era were, of course, the Clintons themselves. They are both masters of political combat, and Mrs. Clinton, even more than her husband, has made clear that she believes there are orthodox Democratic positions that need to be fought for. She seemed almost exasperated on this point after losing in South Carolina to Mr. Obama and his promise to unite the country around a common purpose. “Of course, I believe very strongly in finding common ground; that’s what I’ve done in the Senate,” she said. “But I also believe in standing our ground against some of the very poorly thought out and ill-conceived policies and ideas that we’ve had to fight against.”
The implicit choice facing voters today in both parties is whether the next president should govern from an orthodox ideological position or more in the manner of the postwar presidents who led through bipartisan consensus.
Certainly Americans have learned that the manner of campaigning does not guarantee the manner of governing. Mr. Bush ran on the promise that he would be a uniter, not a divider. But if the nature of a campaign is any signal, the current ones show clear distinctions on this question of partisanship.
American politics has been so polarized for so long now that it is hardly surprising that veteran politicians like Mr. Romney and Mrs. Clinton fall back on standard political tools (like casting doubt on their opponents’ partisan bona fides) to motivate the party base, particularly in what is, after all, still a party nominating fight, not a general election. Mr. Obama spoke last week of bad political “habits” of divisiveness and partisanship, which he said were not the fault of any one campaign. In their political careers these candidates have never really seen much else.
WHAT is perhaps more revealing is that for all their experience Mr. Romney and Mrs. Clinton are campaigning as if they had missed the extraordinary shift in national mood.
Not so Mr. Obama or, to a considerable extent, Mr. McCain. Mr. Obama’s campaign has clearly been tapping a pervasive disenchantment with the nation’s condition and its politics. And Mr. McCain has been running against the conservative establishment, the seat of its orthodoxy.
“I don’t know that we have seen in the last 50 years two candidates who have so openly tried to move beyond their party base before the nomination as Obama and McCain,” said Meenekshi Bose, professor of presidential studies at Hofstra University.
Across the political spectrum Americans say they feel that something is wrong. For many years, poll takers have been asking Americans the standard question of whether they think the country is going in the right or wrong direction. The numbers this winter are about as bad as they have ever been. Nearly 7 in 10 of those surveyed say the country is on the wrong track. Indeed, says the poll taker Peter D. Hart, the country has gone through Vietnam, Watergate and impeachment without a period of sustained negativity that equals this.
It would be easy in the current political climate to presume that the bipartisans are the good guys and the party fundamentalists the bad. But that would be to assume that what is politically attractive at the moment will also be politically effective or even right.
Mr. Smith picked his words precisely. Americans say they want to see politicians working across party lines. But do they really mean it? One voter’s consensus is another’s fatal compromise. Are you actually willing to give up some cherished goal, or part of it, to achieve more unity?
Mr. Hart, the poll taker, notes that while voters agree that the American house needs repair, half want to shore up the floorboards and the others want to fix the roof. They may all want to unite, but unite around what?
Indeed, you could look at Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Romney as the realists. They confront politics as it is, rather than engaging in flights of fancy about what it might be. They aren’t just pandering to the base because they need core party voters to win the nomination. They are fighting for principles that separate their side from the other.
There is a strong cadre around Mrs. Clinton who believe that this is the moment for Democrats to do what the Republicans did so well for nearly 30 years: seize the high ground of ideas, offer strong proposals and push them through. In other words, the goal, as Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton adviser, put it in a recent interview with The New Yorker, is not transcending partisanship but “fulfilling it.”
With the tide running for the Democrats this year, the campaign season will show whether it is the misfortune of partisan Democrats that their moment has arrived just as the country has had it with partisanship.
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