After Tucson, a thaw between Obama and McCain?

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 6:22 PM

Could the long-icy relationship between President Obama and his 2008 presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), be thawing?

McCain took a significant step toward reconciling with the president in a graceful op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post. If that article marks a genuine fresh beginning, it would be one positive thing to come out of the horrific shooting spree in Tucson eight days ago.

McCain and Obama will never be comrades in arms. They have too much history, too much mutual ill will and too many philosophical differences for that. In the two years since McCain went down in defeat against Obama, the tension between them has been evident in almost every public setting in which they've appeared.

But in praising the president's speech at Wednesday's memorial service in Tucson, McCain has reached out to Obama with an open hand. Not since his gracious concession speech on the night of the election has McCain spoken so generously of his rival. Obama should not let the opportunity pass to reach out to McCain in return.

McCain said much more than just that the president gave, as he put it, "a terrific speech." He offered a character reference for a politician whom many conservatives in McCain's party see as un-American. "I disagree with many of the president's policies," he wrote, "but I believe he is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country's cause. I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals."

This is not the first time he has said something like that about the president. In the closing weeks of the 2008 campaign, the Republican nominee came to Obama's defense, rebuking some of those who had spoken out most stridently at his rallies, including people who claimed Obama was un-American.

That moment proved fleeting. McCain had concluded early on that Obama's talk of bipartisanship and unity was longer on words than on deeds. He privately questioned whether Obama had the courage to challenge members of his own party, as he would need to do to bring about real bipartisanship - and as McCain had done so often with his fellow Republicans. McCain often let his lack of respect for Obama show through on the campaign trail.

He also had other grievances about Obama and his allies, most notably over something said by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement and someone McCain long had regarded with respect.

As the McCain rallies grew more raucous, Lewis suggested that the Republican nominee was condoning the most vitriolic attacks against Obama and that doing so could create an atmosphere conducive to violence - much as George Wallace's behavior did during the civil rights era. McCain was as deeply hurt by that as anything said of him in public life, his advisers said at the time.

During the campaign, Obama registered McCain's disrespect and returned it in kind. For two years, their mutual resentment has been at the surface of their relationship, to the detriment of the country. Both have seemed more interested in scoring points against the other than in putting the 2008 campaign behind them.

When the president convened his health-care summit last winter, McCain jabbed at Obama for having failed to live up to his promise to conduct health-care negotiations on C-SPAN.

Obama interjected: "We're not campaigning anymore. The election is over."

"I'm reminded of that every day," McCain responded.

It's possible that Tucson will let the two leaders turn the page. The McCain who comes through in the Post op-ed is the McCain many have known for a long time. Only the puckish sense of humor is absent, appropriately so given the article's subject matter.

The Arizona senator has moved to the right, along with his party, in the past four years. That makes true partnership with the president more difficult, given Obama's policies and leanings and the posture of the Democratic base. But both men have often preferred to look for ways to operate closer to the political center. Whether it is on immigration, energy or Afghanistan, the possibilities for greater cooperation between them seems to exist if the will is there to find some common ground.

No less obvious in McCain's article is his strong defense of Sarah Palin, his vice presidential running mate. Palin drew instant criticism after the shootings for a map she had published that included cross hairs on the districts of 20 members of Congress whom she had singled out for defeat. She was accused of contributing to a climate that led to the Tucson massacre, though there was no evidence to support such a connection.

When she finally spoke in her defense Wednesday, she drew more criticism for invoking the phrase "blood libel," heavily freighted words, to characterize the trespass of those who blamed the shootings on conservative rhetoric - or anything she had done.

McCain noted that people should not expect a political leader to be indifferent to unfair assaults on her character. "Imagine how it must feel," he wrote, "to have watched one week ago the incomprehensible massacre of innocents committed by someone who had lost some essential part of his humanity, to have shared in the heartache for its victims and in the admiration for those who acted heroically to save the lives of others - and to have heard in the coverage of that tragedy voices accusing you of complicity in it."

Obama said the same thing, using different words, in Tucson. "Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together," he said.

Obama and McCain have spoken as leaders in the aftermath of Tucson in an attempt to elevate the public dialogue. Perhaps they can begin to speak to each other in the way they have asked everyone to do.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company