WASHINGTON — In his victory speech Tuesday night, President-elect Barack Obama returned to a central theme of his campaign, the importance of closing the partisan divide that has crippled Washington and turned national politics into blood sport.
"In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people," Obama said. "Let's resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long."
But partisan posturing is so ingrained in the capital's culture that Obama faces a huge challenge to overcome it.
The 24-hour news cycle and blogosphere are fueled by smash-mouth politics. President Bush and the Democrats who run Congress made their own promises about bipartisanship but rarely practiced what they preached. And spoiling the other guy's plans has become an end in itself.
Yet there are signs that Obama could tame the partisanship.
He has shown a willingness to work with Republicans in the U.S. Senate and in the Illinois Senate, and to entertain dissenting views. He has built a career as a consensus builder. When he became the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review, he angered liberal black friends by promoting conservatives to top jobs.
Meanwhile, voters often say they are weary of the constant infighting, and on Tuesday they chose the candidate who talked most about bringing more bipartisanship to Washington.
"The reality is that it's out of control," said Donna Brazile, a Democrat who managed Al Gore's campaign in 2000. "If you look at the last two elections, the public is fed up."
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Everybody talks a good game about bipartisanship.
"I reject the ugly politics of division," George W. Bush said in 1999 when he first ran for president. "I'm a uniter, not a divider."
Likewise, after Democrats took control of the House in the 2006 election, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California declared: "We will work with Republicans in Congress and the administration in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship."
But Washington promises fade quickly, fueled by a news media that prefers conflict to compromise. Cable news channels, talk radio and the blogs attract larger audiences by playing to one side of the political spectrum. They make stars of lawmakers from the extremes, and they prefer arguments to handshakes.
"They hype breaking news … they exaggerate differences," said Bill Brock, a former U.S. senator, Cabinet secretary and chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Also, lawmakers are often discouraged from cutting a deal with the other side. The success of a ruling party is measured in whether it can pass its agenda; for the minority party, success means thwarting it. But to accomplish either goal, the party must keep its members in line.
"You get rewarded for your fidelity to your party," said former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat. "You get punished if you can be characterized as vacillating or too conciliatory to the other party."
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Daunting challenges, yes. Insurmountable, no — particularly at a time of national economic crisis, when the public is demanding answers, and if Obama turns his pleas for bipartisanship into actions.
Republicans and Democrats alike say Obama needs to reach across the aisle quickly, perhaps by appointing Republicans to top posts in his administration.
"The tone that he sets beginning now in the transition is hugely important, and his presidency will certainly be marked by that tone," said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, the former co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission and one of Washington's most respected practitioners of interparty cooperation.
"He really has an extraordinary opportunity. I think he has to show respect for all the parties, I think he must not claim a sweeping mandate, I think he needs to build trust ... that he will seek to build consensus, that he will govern from the center, not from the left."
Unlike 1992, when Bill Clinton was intent on reinventing health care, or 2004, when President Bush was intent on creating private accounts for Social Security, the items at the top of Obama's agenda aren't polarizing in and of themselves.
Americans may disagree with how to address them, but there's little disagreement they need addressing: bringing the war in Iraq to some sensible conclusion, promoting energy independence and, first of all, stabilizing the housing market and restoring confidence in the U.S. economy.
"The urgency does allow him to focus everyone's attention on the scope of the problem and therefore narrow down the potential policy solutions," said Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, the third-ranking House Republican.
"If there's a common threat, or a common sense around the nation that something must be done, then you have the most important ingredient for finding compromise, which is the sense that there's a need to have a deliverable."
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Obama, of course, isn't the only one who must deliver.
Despite their larger majorities, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate must resist the push of their base to govern from the left and instead take a centrist approach.
One factor making that easier is that most of the Democrats who took Republican-held House seats in the past two elections, such as Orlando lawyer Alan Grayson, who beat Rep. Ric Keller on Tuesday, hail from swing or even conservative-leaning districts, where moderation is a must.
Swing hard to the left, and those guys will be in trouble in 2010.
Republicans must decide whether finding common ground is in their best interest. An hour after Obama was declared the winner, House Republican leader John Boehner issued a strident statement bashing Obama's "troubling policy roadmap" and portending plenty of fights ahead.
The Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who almost lost Tuesday, was far more conciliatory, however, promising "timely consideration" of Obama's Cabinet appointees and pledging that on "bipartisan issues, he will find cooperation."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.
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Barack Obama Joe Biden
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