Uniter or Divider?

Posted Oct. 07, 2008, at 7:54 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:25 a.m.

One of the more interesting yet mostly overlooked contrasts to come out of the first presidential debate was the times the candidates agreed on some issues. It was a contrast because it was Sen. Barack Obama agreeing with Sen. John McCain, and not vice versa.

Both candidates have hitched their wagons to the need to change the way the nation is governed. You likely heard much more on this theme in the second debate last night.

Sen. Obama beat the “change” word nearly to death in his improbable primary run, but it worked. He argued — and Democrats agreed — that a new, post-partisan way forward is the only hope for a country so evenly divided on many issues. In a telephone interview with the NEWS in February, just before Maine’s caucuses, Mr. Obama said he was not a part of the bitter partisan battles of the 1990s, and so retribution was not on his agenda.

The 1990s were, indeed, an ugly time in Washington. When President Clinton ended 12 years of Republican tenancy in the White House in 1992 and unveiled an agenda that included a broad restructuring of health care finance, the GOP succeeded in tapping voter wariness. With their Contract With America, they took control of Congress in 1994 after decades in the minority, and suddenly the underdog in the heavyweight fight had the reigning champ on the ropes. But the contest ended in a draw — Mr. Clinton easily won re-election in 1996, but he faced impeachment in 1998.

Neither side forgave the other.

Sen. McCain has labeled himself a maverick, and, at least until recently, that tag was accurate. His 2000 presidential bid saw him snubbing the Christian Right and the GOP base with his commitment to campaign finance reform. Sen. McCain now asserts that he has the ability to work with both parties in Congress. He cites, accurately, that he has incurred his party’s wrath when he has parted company with it on some issues.

But a very telling move by the McCain campaign came the day after the debate. It released an advertisement that featured a video montage of Sen. Obama agreeing with Sen. McCain on several issues during their exchanges. Following the clips of, “John is right. I agree with Sen. McCain,” and so on, the ad text concluded, “Obama: Ready to Lead? No.” The suggestion is that agreeing with Sen. McCain revealed a weakness on Sen. Obama’s part, rather than an ability to see the good in an opponent’s ideas.

If the ability to end partisan battling is still an important quality to voters, the McCain camp is sending a mixed message.

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