President-elect Barack Obama is reaching out to his critics, as illustrated by his make-nice meeting today with defeated Republican rival John McCain and his session last week with former Democratic foe Hillary Clinton to discuss the possibility of her taking over as secretary of state. But generating a real spirit of bipartisanship in Washington may be tougher than Obama realizes, according to two senior Republican strategists who participated in a forum to assess the election and its aftermath.
Three Democrats on the recent panel, sponsored by the Smithsonian in Washington, said voters want a new spirit of compromise. For example, Howard Dean, outgoing chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Obama was elected with a "mandate" to change politics in Washington. Referring to fellow baby boomers, Dean said, "Our generation is a confrontational generation. This new generation is a service generation."
Cornell Belcher, a pollster for Obama's presidential campaign, said the Democratic nominee was able to "change the face of the electorate" by mobilizing new voters, young people, African-Americans, and others. In the process, Belcher said, voters to some degree "turned the page" from wedge issues that have divided Americans in the past, such as abortion and guns. And Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster and former chief strategist for Clinton, said many voters agree that "the language of Washington is too harsh" and politics shouldn't be a way to just "beat the other guy over the head." Politics, Garin argued, is not "a death battle."
But Frank Donatelli, a former senior adviser to McCain, said it's important for Republicans to serve as "the loyal opposition"—loyal to the nation and at the same time opposed to the party in power when their philosophies and objectives conflict. Much depends, Donatelli said, on whether Obama truly tries to govern as a bipartisan leader and whether he listens to the GOP.
Kevin Madden, who was the top spokesman for GOP candidate Mitt Romney in the primaries, said, "The levers of partisanship are hard to resist" for members of Congress. They can, for example, use partisan differences to raise campaign funds and motivate core voters, and that continues to be a strong temptation.
If congressional Democrats, enjoying expanded majorities in the House and Senate, move too far left, some Republicans will feel obliged to move to the right as a "counterbalance," Madden said.