Barack Obama appears now to have earned enough delegates to ensure his eventual selection as the November standard bearer for the Democrats. Senator Obama has harnessed his rhetorical abilities and populist message to position himself as a new kind of politician. He’s selling himself as an inspirational uniter who promises to take our country beyond the partisan bickering that dominates Washington. In short, his election will help transcend partisanship and race and change everything that is wrong with the United States.
In spite of this compelling vision of a united America, Senator Obama has exhibited very little bipartisanship during his short time in the national spotlight. He supports traditional left-leaning causes: repealing high-income tax cuts and increasing government spending. The National Journal scored Mr. Obama as the most liberal Senator in 2007. He’s been endorsed by some of the most liberal and partisan forces in the Democratic Party, including Moveon.org. Claiming to be a uniter is one thing; living it is another.
Lest we forget, President George W. Bush also came to Washington promising to be "a uniter, not a divider." As Governor of Texas with a Democrat-controlled legislature, he reached across partisan lines to achieve important things for the state. Bush had a proven track record as uniter and there was every hope that he could do in Washington what he did in Texas. It was not to be!
Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s new book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception" has exploded onto the political scene. McClellan disclosed his motive for writing the book: "Like many Americans, I am concerned about the poisonous atmosphere in Washington. I wanted to take readers inside the White House and provide them an open and honest look at how things went off course and what can be learned from it. Hopefully in some small way it will contribute to changing Washington for the better and move us beyond the hyper-partisan environment that has permeated Washington over the past 15 years."
Predictably, his book has already added to that hyper-partisan environment. Republicans have questioned McClellan's motives, credibility and naïveté. Liberal Democrats and “Bush Haters” are using his book to fuel further attacks.
McClellan continues to expresses “personal affection for the president,” but he failed to be a “uniter, not a divider.” In a Fox News interview with Bill O’Reilly, McClellan confessed, “This is about an idealistic young guy, who goes to work for him (Bush), hoping we can change the partisanship, and then we go way off course…. the whole thing about the book is that there are a lot of good people on both sides. We've got to get rid of the venom and the hatred on both sides and find out how we can come together. I'm a centrist. I believe in working together to solve the problems we've got. And we need to get rid of the venom in the political atmosphere in D.C. It's a poisonous atmosphere.”
The only times Americans have a history of uniting is to fight a common foreign enemy. Our country is built on a messy and often contentious freedom–the freedom of speech! For over two centuries we have guarded and even celebrated our freedom to disagree. America’s op-ed pages are not for the fainthearted. They remain a battleground where ideas and causes have been tested by the fire of public discourse. We may not like what is expressed, but we protect the right to express even controversial positions.
Don’t expect the poisonous atmosphere in Washington to change any time soon. In most states, we’ve created a gerrymander nightmare where some senators and most congressional leaders face “safe” elections. Because of one-sided registration numbers, one’s campaign fight is not with the other party but with more radical primary candidates in your own party. To ensure a primary victory, candidates on either side of our political divide are forced to prove their “purity” to their party’s core constituency. You don’t win in safe districts or safe states by running to the middle as a uniter—you provide “red meat” to the faithful!
Only in presidential and closely contested campaigns does it pay to attract votes from the middle. In primaries, most presidential candidates run to their base. They run to the middle to attract critical independents as they sprint to November.
As voters, resist empty calls for “unity.” Demand more clarity from our candidates. Where do they stand on important issues? What is their vision for the future of our country? Between now and November, make every effort to clarify the differences between Barack Obama and John McCain that will determine your vote.
One party defines caring by the number of people receiving services; the other tries to measure success by the number of people who no longer need government support. One party wants to keep taxes lower for all Americans; the other wants lower taxes from some Americans and higher taxes for a select few. One candidate wants to end earmarks and cut government spending; the other promises to expand government spending on universal healthcare. One candidate is calling for bringing soldiers home from Iraq by the end of 2009 whether victory is achieved or not; the other candidate is calling to stay until the work is done and the new Iraqi government and their forces can maintain order and want us to leave.
As to the poisonous atmosphere in Washington, let’s leave it in Washington. Have passion for your candidates and principles, but let’s agree to disagree without being quite so disagreeable.