Today I had an op-ed piece published in the New York Times. An editor contacted me on the day of the New Hampshire primary to ask if I would write about comparing George W. Bush’s self-description as “a uniter, not a divider,” with Barack Obama’s message of hope and his promises to work with Republicans. The article would appear on Thursday, two days after Obama’s triumph in New Hampshire and his knockout of Hillary Clinton. Sure, I said — and watched in horror as Obama finished second. I assumed the piece was dead, but the next day my editor suggested that I give it a try. Bush and Obama now had two things in common, he said. They positioned themselves as healers, and they had both finished second in New Hampshire. Thus the rather lame and stilted lead to my piece, which follows below.
BY losing the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Barack Obama found himself sharing common ground with an adversary whose politics he has often criticized: George W. Bush. Like Mr. Bush in 2000, Mr. Obama finished second in a primary he had expected to win.
As it happens, this is not the only way that Mr. Obama resembles Mr. Bush. The Illinois Democrat seems to have learned a lot from the first presidential campaign of a Texas Republican.
Mr. Bush positioned himself in 2000 as “a uniter, not a divider,” and Mr. Obama, while carefully avoiding using the word “uniter,” now offers a similar message. Just as Mr. Bush’s message of compassionate conservatism appealed to many Democrats and independent-minded liberals, Mr. Obama’s politics of hope seems to disarm Republicans and rightward-leaning independents.
Unfortunately for those conservatives drawn to Mr. Obama’s message of unity, he almost certainly can’t deliver on it. Just as President Bush failed to unite Washington and instead ended up contributing to its divisiveness, so Mr. Obama will eventually have to accept that conflict, rather than unity, is the natural condition of politics.
In a way, I have come to blame myself for believing that Mr. Bush could be a uniter and not a divider. In retrospect, it is clear that he was a divider in Texas, too. Even while working with Democrats, he destroyed the Democratic Party here with his personality.
When Mr. Bush announced his candidacy for governor against Ann Richards in 1993, Democrats dominated the statewide offices and held majorities in both houses of the Legislature. When he left for Washington, they held no statewide offices, had lost control of the Senate, and would soon lose control of the House. He did it through his personal popularity, which was so great that Democrats didn’t dare to be Democrats, and soon there were few Democrats to speak of, except African-Americans and Hispanics. To this day, the party has not recovered.
Mr. Bush’s claim to have governed Texas in a bipartisan spirit was based on his record of cooperation with Democratic legislative leaders. And the good will was genuine. The leadership embraced his proposals and Governor Bush didn’t meddle with the usual legislative initiatives, including the state budget.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Bush warned Tom DeLay and other Congressional leaders not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. After his inauguration, he received considerable Democratic support for his response to the 9/11 attacks, for the Patriot Act and for the No Child Left Behind law. But in the second year of his presidency, the notion of Mr. Bush as a uniter soon receded from memory.
The president campaigned vigorously during the 2002 elections to help Republicans regain control of the Senate. Differences over fundamental issues like the war in Iraq and the confirmation of judges prevented a rapprochement between the president and the Democrats, which, by the time Mr. Bush won a second term in 2004, neither party really wanted.
In a multiparty parliamentary system, a deft leader can form, dissolve and reorganize governing coalitions, but in the American political system, the imperative of the majority is to hold power and the imperative of the minority is to seize power for itself. It may serve the minority’s interest to cooperate from time to time, but in principle it can advance itself only by opposing the majority.
In a world of bloggers and talk radio and 24/7 news cycles, Mr. Obama — or anyone else who goes into politics — is making promises he can’t keep when he says he wants to work with the other side. Yes, there are moments when politicians look to the common good and when both sides conclude that compromise is in their best interest. In general, however, the nature of American politics is, and should be, adversarial.
For many liberals and independents, the lesson of compassionate conservatism and the Bush presidency has been that policy matters more than campaign rhetoric. Conservatives who are drawn to Mr. Obama’s politics of hope would be wise to remember that.
Evan Smith called to say that he didn’t like the piece. Evan is a good critic. He thought that the piece read as if it had been written to disparage Obama and his message of hope. He said that I had missed the whole point about Obama: that he was trying to move beyond politics as usual (my characterization, not his), and that he was an entirely different kind of candidate from Hillary Clinton. I guess that my response would be that I didn’t intend to write about Obama, negatively or otherwise. If anything, I intended to write about Bush and the lessons his career, in Texas and in Washington, held for Obama. (Indeed, I doubt that the Times called upon me because of my knowledge of Obama, rather, they were interested in my knowledge of Bush.) Most of all, I intended to write about the nature of politics. What Bush found, when he did try to work with the Democrats in Washington, was that they didn’t really want to be worked with. My point was that it is seldom in the interest of the minority party to assist the majority party in achieving success. If the minority doesn’t attack, it can’t win. For almost fifty years, from the beginning of the New Deal to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party was relegated to the status of a permanent me-too minority in Congress, because they were unable to attack successfully (one reason being that conservatives in both parties were on the wrong side of the most important issue of the day, civil rights and the end of segregation). Reagan took the Republicans from a minority party to the majority party. Obama may yet do the same for the Democrats, but he will have to do it the hard way: in spite of the opposition, not because of their help.