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The appeal of cooperation

Nothing united candidates from both parties in this week's dramatic New Hampshire primary more than a hunger for more unity.
/ Source: National Journal

Nothing united candidates from both parties in this week's dramatic New Hampshire primary more than a hunger for more unity.

Both races featured a shared conviction that unrelenting partisanship was disabling Washington. Republican hit that note in almost all of the town meetings he held en route to his comeback victory on Tuesday. "That's what this problem is all about in Washington -- we put party above country," he declared to resounding applause last weekend as sunlight streamed through the high windows in the beautiful town hall building here. "I will not do that."

Democrat , who finished a step behind , was equally emphatic. "We are ready," Obama told his reverent audiences, "to come together as Democrats and Republicans and independents and say that we are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come."

Those messages weren't too surprising from Obama and McCain, the candidates who focused most on independent voters and carried them comfortably in each primary, according to exit polls. But they weren't alone. Republican , like a man unlacing a straitjacket, finally shed his rigidly ideological message to present himself as a pragmatic problem solver committed to "helping the people rather than helping his ... party." Clinton, the stunning Lazarus-like winner, slightly varied the theme: She promised to "bring us together around common ground," while also pledging to "stand her ground" against Republicans who won't compromise. Republican pledged inclusion, too.

It's probably worth filing away that a bipartisan group of political elders led by former Democratic Sens. David Boren and Sam Nunn also chose this week to issue a manifesto challenging the next president to assemble an inclusive "government of national unity" -- and that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose aides continue to explore an independent presidential candidacy, was among those attending the group's first meeting in Oklahoma.

These pledges of bipartisan cooperation from the major-party candidates could prove as ephemeral as George W. Bush's promise in 2000 to govern as a "uniter, not a divider." No president can narrow the country's divisions without offering policies that appeal beyond his (or her) party's base, and the contenders have been hesitant to do so. In several cases, those who challenged their party with ideas that could encourage bipartisan agreements -- McCain by supporting a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants, Obama by hinting he could accept benefit reductions within a comprehensive Social Security deal -- have retreated under fire from their rivals and powerful interest groups.

So more collaboration between the parties will demand more substantive concessions than the top contenders have offered so far. But tone matters, too. Obama and McCain (and, to varying degrees, their rivals) are presenting a vision that rejects the bruising 50-plus-one focus on maximizing partisan unity that has guided President Bush -- and which both parties' most confrontational voices are still demanding.

Indeed, Obama's ascent has come amid fierce attacks on his partisan loyalty from liberal "Net-roots" leaders such as Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos (who meant it as no compliment when he recently described Obama as "the return of Bill Clinton-style triangulating personified"). New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, another liberal leviathan, recently stamped Obama as "the anti-change candidate" for peddling the "fantasy" that "the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation." McCain has long faced similar scorn from conservatives for compromising with Senate Democrats on issues from campaign finance to judicial nominations.

Those arguments may yet cut. McCain still faces resistance from conservative Republicans that could derail him, just as it did in 2000. Obama ran strongly among liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire (which may say something about the Net-roots' actual reach). But Clinton, rejuvenated by her unexpected victory, will pursue partisan Democratic voters by questioning whether Obama has the will, or skill, to truly advance their party's priorities.

Yet regardless of whether Obama and McCain ultimately capture their nominations, they have already demonstrated the appeal of a reconciliation message to the independent and less partisan voters likely to decide next fall's general election. Bloomberg, eclipsed for now by the electrifying primary competition, is surely taking note. The two major parties would be wise to do so as well.