John McCain grew up in the '40s and '50s, when it was clear that our enemies in the hot and cold wars wanted to kill us. We knew how to fight back. Obama is a post-boomer who inherited an optimistic view of the world when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. That was shattered on 9-11. Together they carry two different perspectives into the political debate that could foreshadow a less polarized Washington, if -- a big if -- Obama's legacy as a grandchild of the '60s doesn't haunt his campaign.
In their book, "Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power," John Harwood and Gerald F. Seib interview two once powerful politicians, one a Democrat and one a Republican, who say it's possible to bring bipartisanship back to Washington with a fresh perspective that eluded the boomer presidents. Robert Strauss, the Democratic national chairman in the 1970s, and Ken Mehlman, the Republican chairman who managed the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004, are now partners as Washington lawyers.
Washington was polarized late in the 20th century, the two argue, because both parties had accomplished the big things. That left them backbiting over the small ones -- or, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger's description of faculty-lounge politics, the debates are vicious because the stakes are so small. Democrats established the New Deal, social-welfare programs, civil rights and women's rights. Republicans built a strong defense to defeat the Soviet Union and lowered tax rates, created welfare reform and reduced crime rates.
"If you look at the challenges we face today," says Mehlman, "challenges are once again the big things -- the war on terror, the need to expand access and reduce the cost of health care, whether you come at it from an environmental perspective or a national security perspective, the need for energy independence. Those are three huge issues, all of which I think are very amenable to bipartisan solutions."
John McCain understands war up close and crosses the aisle in search of solutions. Obama prescribes more cross-party cooperation to change the way Washington works. Fans and followers of the Clintons and George W. perpetuate polarization. "People," says Strauss, "are not as foolish as sometimes they act." We can hope he's right.