For a dozen years, our politics has been bitterly polarized, dominated by two baby boomer presidents who happen to have personal characteristics that people on the other side of the cultural divide absolutely loathe. Clinton in 1992 and Bush in 2000 both made genuine efforts to run as unifiers, but once in office proved to be dividers.
The 2008 cycle will bring a different cast of characters. The leaders in the polls -- Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Hillary Clinton -- all are, to varying degrees, in tension with their parties' bases. That suggests that they have the capacity, to varying degrees, to appeal across the cultural divide and pull their parties above the 51 percent ceilings they've been under for the past 10 years. Other potential candidates -- Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama -- may have similar potential. The culturally conservative Republican base and the vitriolically antiwar Democratic base don't seem to have strong candidates, unless you count Al Gore and John Edwards.
For the next two years, political governance and presidential politics seem likely to proceed on two separate tracks, with little relation between them. House and Senate Democratic leaders may want to avoid confrontation on issues that will put their presidential candidates on the defensive. Bush seems less likely to worry about the effect of his decisions on possible Republican nominees.
That leaves the initiative on setting a post-Bush agenda to the presidential candidates of both parties. They start off closely matched. Pollster Scott Rasmussen, whose final Senate numbers were spot on, shows Hillary Clinton trailing John McCain 48 percent to 43 percent and tied 46 percent to 46 percent with Rudolph Giuliani. Democrats may have thumped Republicans last week, but the political future is very much up for grabs.