Archive for Sunday, May 23, 2004

Voters crave end to partisan warfare

May 23, 2004


— The air is filled these days with unsolicited advice to the presidential candidates.

It's not uncommon for people outside the campaigns to convince themselves that they are better strategists than those hired to do that work. But something about the current situation has spread the virus beyond the usual suspects -- bored lawyers, underemployed entertainers and the rest. Republicans are bummed out by President Bush's declining polls and are sure they know how to turn them around. Democrats are equally frustrated that John Kerry can't seem to exploit Bush's problems to lock up the election this very week.

Knowing that both men are wise enough to ignore most of this free counsel only liberates the volunteer helpers to give their imaginations free rein. Thus, well-meaning Republicans ignore the president's repeated statements that Dick Cheney will remain on the ticket. They vie with each other in arguing the merits of Rudy Giuliani, Bill Frist or even George Pataki as a substitute -- acting for all the world as if there were a vacancy to fill.

Since Kerry's running mate has not been named, Democrats are free to play this game, touting the virtues of John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Wes Clark, Tom Vilsack, Bill Richardson and others -- notwithstanding the fact that they have no clue about what Kerry is seeking in a partner.

Not all the free advice is worthless, however. My friend, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., has just published a book aimed at Democrats in general and Kerry in particular. Its title says it all: "Stand Up Fight Back."

Dionne starts with an unsparing analysis. "The Democratic Party lost its way because of its obsession with pointless feuds, outdated strategies and old arguments," he writes. "Democrats complain regularly that Republicans fight unfairly, that they will say and do anything to win. But Democrats forgot how to fight back. They didn't know what they stood for, so they didn't know what they were fighting for."

That weakness was apparent in Al Gore's 2000 campaign and even more cripplingly obvious in the midterm elections of 2002. But Dionne sees some signs that these losses "have toughened Democrats and progressives. Throughout 2003 and early 2004, the tone of their response changed. There was more audaciousness, a greater willingness to challenge." He praises all the losing contenders for the nomination for setting an aggressive tone that encouraged Kerry to voice his readiness to battle Bush on the issue of national security by "mocking the president's swagger" with the words, "Bring it on!"

Dionne's historical analysis is impeccable, but I'm not sure his prescription for the Democrats is as convincing. He urges that liberals and moderates rally to the banner of "progressive patriotism." That's a bit bland for a battle cry. But Dionne's dead right when he says Americans yearn for a party that would pledge to end "a status quo that is dividing and failing our country" and instead "declare that we are all in this together."

As Sen. Joe Biden said on "Meet the Press" last week, there is a palpable hunger among voters for ending the partisan warfare between "Red America and Blue America." When he was running in 2000, Bush promised to change the poisonous atmosphere in Washington. That hasn't happened. So Kerry is in a position to fulfill that hope by promising to construct a genuine national administration -- one that would give significant Cabinet and agency responsibilities to Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Ample precedent exists. FDR enlisted Republicans such as Henry Stimson for key jobs in his wartime Cabinet. John Kennedy, Kerry's role model, gave the Treasury, the CIA and the Defense Department to Republicans.

I know of nothing that would be more warmly welcomed by many voters -- and do more to define Kerry as a different kind of president -- than the promise of a government that would bring to Washington the most talented, experienced and large-minded men and women, regardless of their past affiliations.

And just to balance the books, let me offer an equally appealing idea to Bush: Get behind the effort to bring baseball back to Washington. As I told the then-governor during an interview in Austin at the start of his first campaign, I am a single-issue voter and will support anyone who will restore baseball privileges to the nation's capital. And that step alone would also improve the tone and temper of Washington.

When Hastert and Pelosi, Daschle and Frist can leave the Capitol and go a few blocks to join the president at a ballgame, Washington will become fit for human life once again.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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