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BROOKS: Shifting from partisanship to craftsmanship

  • This artwork by William Brown relates to concerns that the U.S. economy is stalling, despite government stimulus efforts.

Voters have been astonishingly clear. In 2000, they elected George W. Bush after he promised to change the tone in Washington. In 2008, they elected Barack Obama after he promised to move the country beyond stale partisan debates. In this year's first presidential debate, surveys show that viewers loved Mitt Romney's talk of professionalism and bipartisanship.

In other words, primary campaigns are won by the candidate who can most convincingly champion the party's agenda, but general election campaigns are won by the candidate who can most plausibly fix the political system. So let's think carefully about what sort of leader it would take to break through the partisan dysfunction and make Washington work.

First, it doesn't take moderation. It's important to distinguish between moderation and pragmatism. Ted Kennedy was nobody's definition of a moderate, yet he had the ability to craft large and effective compromises on issues ranging from immigration to education and health care.

Second, the governing craftsman has to have a dual consciousness. He has to be able to distinguish between a campaign consciousness and a governing consciousness. The campaign consciousness involves simplifying your own positions, exaggerating your opponent's weaknesses and magnifying the differences between your relative positions. In governing mode, you have to do the reverse of all these things.

Third, it does require the ability to count. The governing craftsman has to be able to know how many votes each side possesses. He has to avoid the narcissistic question: What do I want? He has to ask instead: Given this correlation of forces, what is the landscape offering me?

Fourth, the craftsman has to avoid the trap of thinking that right makes right. He has to avoid saying to himself: My position is objectively the correct one. Therefore, all I have to do is get the facts out there, win the debate and then I'll get everything I want.

The craftsman has to accept the hard reality that the other side also believes these things. It is extremely unlikely that one side will convince the other, or the country. The craftsman can hope for some final ideological victory, but he can't realistically expect one.

Fifth, the craftsman has to distinguish between existential issues and business issues. Winston Churchill would have made a terrible mistake if he had compromised with the appeasers. On the other hand, Dan Rostenkowski and Robert Packwood were absolutely right to compromise to get the tax reform of 1986 passed.

The craftsman has to understand that in the middle of the fight almost every issue will feel like an existential issue, though, in reality, 98 percent of legislative conflicts are business issues.

Sixth, the craftsman has to be able to read a calendar. It is psychically painful to move away from your heartfelt position. It is easier to say to yourself: I can't get what I want now, but, if I just wait, I'll win the next election and get everything after that. Participants in the Middle East peace process do this: They postpone their dreams while maximizing their demands.

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