Three Words For the Next President

By David S. Broder
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster whose firm has interviewed thousands of voters this year, says the attributes most of them desire in a president for 2008 can be summed up in three words: transparency, authenticity and unity.

I needed help from him in understanding the first word. But when he said it meant honesty, openness, forthrightness in expressing views and clarity about the sources of the candidate's support, I said that sounded right.

The other two traits were easily understandable. Authenticity means comfort in one's own skin, a minimum of pretense or artificiality, and especially consistency and predictability on matters of principle.

The hankering for unity is also palpable and reflects the conspicuous absence of agreement -- and excess of partisanship -- in the contemporary political scene. I have been saying for months that voters care less whether the next president will be a Democrat or a Republican than that the person moving into the Oval Office be someone who can pull the country together to face its challenges.

That is also the theme of an excellent new book by Ron Brownstein, the able political reporter who recently left the Los Angeles Times to become political director of the Atlantic Media Co., publisher of the Atlantic magazine, the National Journal and the Hotline.

The book, "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America," is a guide to a dysfunctional political environment that has poisoned relationships between the executive and legislative branches and made this session of Congress notably acrimonious and unproductive.

Brownstein traces the problem back to the "sorting-out" process that shuffled the membership of both parties starting in the 1960s. Congressional districts in the South that once elected conservative Democrats began electing Republicans. States bordering Canada that once elected moderate or progressive Republicans started electing Democrats.

Where each party used to have an ideological mixture, each is now more clearly defined in opposition to the other. The result is a Republican Party that is far more universally (and stridently) conservative; and a Democratic Party whose center of gravity has moved equally far to the left.

The center has become lightly populated, and the penalties for politicians who communicate, let alone consort, across party lines have become much stiffer. The incentives are almost all to hunker down and fight, not to compromise and settle.

The congressional divisions have been heightened by President Bush's strategic decision to govern almost entirely within his own party's relatively narrow political base. He courted mainly core Republicans to power his two trips to the White House, and he has relied almost exclusively on Republican votes in the House and Senate to sustain his program.

While giving him some notable victories, this strategy also solidified the opposition and stiffened the Democrats' determination to oppose him at every opportunity, whatever the consequences.

But, as Brownstein notes, there has been no comparable increase in partisanship among the voters, who cling stubbornly to a common-sense, moderate conservative view and simply want the practical problems that bother them addressed. The things the public worries about -- the Iraq war, health care, energy, immigration -- are not partisan problems but national challenges.

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