Voters want and need unity

Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster whose firm has interviewed thousands of voters this year, says the attributes most of them desire in a president for 2008 can be summed up in three words: transparency, authenticity and unity.

I needed help from him in understanding the first word. But when he said it meant honesty, openness, forthrightness in expressing views, and clarity about the sources of the candidate's support, I said that sounded right.

The other two traits were easily understandable. Authenticity means comfort in one's own skin, a minimum of pretense or artificiality, and especially consistency and predictability on matters of principle.

The hankering for unity is also palpable and reflects the conspicuous absence of agreement — and excess of partisanship — in the contemporary political scene. I have been saying for months that voters care less whether the next president is a Democrat or a Republican than that the person moving into the Oval Office be someone who can pull the country together to face its challenges.

That is also the theme of an excellent new book by Ron Brownstein, the able political reporter who recently left the staff of the Los Angeles Times to become political director of the Atlantic Media Company, publishers of The Atlantic magazine, National Journal and The Hotline.

The book — "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America" — is a guide to a dysfunctional political environment that has poisoned relationships between the executive and legislative branches and made this session of Congress notably acrimonious and unproductive.

Brownstein traces the problem back to the "sorting-out" process, which shuffled both parties' membership starting in the 1960s. Congressional districts in the South that once elected conservative Democrats began electing Republicans. States bordering Canada that once elected moderate or progressive Republicans started electing Democrats.

Where each party used to have an ideological mixture, each is now more clearly defined — in opposition to the other. The result is a Republican Party that is far more universally (and stridently) conservative; and a Democratic Party whose center of gravity has moved equally far to the left.

The center has become lightly populated, and the penalties for politicians who communicate, let alone consort, across party lines have become much stiffer. The incentives are almost all to hunker down and fight, not to compromise and settle.

The congressional divisions have been heightened by President Bush's strategic decision to govern almost entirely within his own party's relatively narrow political base. He courted mainly core Republicans to power his two trips to the White House and he has relied almost exclusively on Republican votes in the House and Senate to sustain his program.

While giving him some notable victories, this strategy also solidified the opposition and stiffened the Democrats' determination to oppose him at every opportunity — whatever the consequences.

But, as Brownstein notes, there has been no comparable increase in partisanship among the voters, who cling stubbornly to a common-sense, moderate conservative view — and simply want the practical problems that bother them addressed. The things the public worries about — the Iraq War, health care, energy, immigration — are not partisan problems, but national challenges.

That is why Hart puts unity up there with the other two principal desires in his distillation of the most-wanted presidential qualities.

The current field of presidential candidates does not offer much hope of finding that ideal. But Brownstein has a suggestion that could help the eventual winner: Consider a collaborative or what he calls an "interactive" approach to the presidency.

"On health care," he writes, "a president could ask the heads of General Motors and Wal-Mart to sit with the leaders of the major health care unions and consumer groups to explore areas of agreement, and to pinpoint their remaining disagreements. On energy issues, oil and utility executives could be brought together with environmentalists and climate scientists. Such a convening style of leadership would tap the energy of voters and interest groups alike exhausted by the warfare in Washington."

Indeed, it would. And what a cause for Thanksgiving that would be.

David Broder is a reporter and columnist for The Washington Post. E-mail him at

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