Uniter appeal

January 08, 2008

Embedded in Democrat Barack Obama's success in the Iowa caucuses and potentially in today's presidential primary balloting in New Hampshire is his call for putting aside Washington partisanship to build "a working majority for change."

"Change" is the primary buzzword, of course, now adopted by all candidates of both parties, who have learned that at a time of war and economic downturn, nobody's much interested in staying the course.

But the phrase "working majority" has its own allure: Democrats and Republicans forming coalitions to achieve concrete results, threading a path between liberal and conservative extremes to address such thorny issues as universal health care, entitlement reform, energy resources and environmental controls.

Virtually nothing of significance can be accomplished without centrist support, which serves as a critical check on the extremes.

When attempts to form a working majority fail, the result is gridlock accompanied by acrimonious bickering that is increasingly wearisome to voters, particularly the independents, who play an outsized role in New Hampshire because they can decide at the last moment to cast a ballot in either party primary.

Such voters undergird support for another candidate known for his willingness to seek common ground with ideological odd fellows: Republican John McCain, who has worked closely with both Mr. Obama and fellow Democratic contender John Edwards. In fact, Mr. McCain has crossed the aisle so often he's suspect among some of his own party.

The challenge for any president is to maintain a broad-based governing coalition once elected. President Bush, who promised to be "a uniter, not a divider," had first-term success with his tax cuts, No Child Left Behind legislation and the Medicare prescription drug program. But outrage at the Iraq war led to a Democratic takeover of Congress last year, and Mr. Bush has adopted the role of spoiler.

Former President Bill Clinton, who was also first elected with a Congress of his own party, lost it after only two years - in part because of the backlash caused by the ambitious health insurance plan designed by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mr. Clinton later made his mark by joining with Republicans to balance the budget, overhaul welfare and provide health care for children of the working poor.

Voters recognize that governing is nowhere near as easy as some candidates make it sound. So far, they seem to be wisely seeking a president who will reach out for all the help he or she can get.

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