Romney, the bridge builder

Why the Republican candidate would do well in reinforcing the political center.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney in Virginia 370 (R) (photo credit: Jim Young / Reuters)
Republican candidate Mitt Romney in Virginia 370 (R)
(photo credit: Jim Young / Reuters)
In the midst of one the most partisan and divisive presidential elections in the United States, sober observers are understandably fretting about the morning after.
Savaged and degraded by extensive and expensive negative ad campaigns, how will the president, irrespective of his identity, effectively govern the next four years? The chasm between the two parties is wide, and centrist politicians such as Joe Lieberman and Richard Lugar will not be back next January. The question is no longer will the center hold, but whether a center still exists.
Liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne believes the best remedy would be a decisive across the board Democratic victory.
The theory is that one of the opposing ideologies could be pummeled into submission if it spectacularly crashes and burns electorally.
This formula has worked before. Unless resigned to making ideological statements rather than contending for power, a party sustaining a succession of defeats will be tempted to modify its ideology. The German Social Democrats did so at Bad Godesberg in 1959. The Democratic Leadership Council in the US and New Labor in Britain arose in response to Republican dominance of presidential elections (five out of six wins between 1968-1988), and Conservative success in the Thatcher-Major era. Similarly, after three straight losses to New Labor, David Cameron modernized the Conservatives.
The problem is that this process usually takes a cycle of over a decade and the US has problems that cannot be put on indefinite hold. Secondly, despite Dionne’s prescription, a crushing Democratic victory is not about to happen in the 2012 elections. It is highly unlikely that either of the two parties is going to score a trifecta and capture the presidency and both houses of Congress.
And then there remains the need for a filibuster-proof Senate.
This leaves voters concerned with extricating the US from gridlock only one choice: picking the candidate who can best work with the opposing party. The supposedly “post-partisan” President Barack Obama had his chance and blew it.
Immediately after the Obama victory in 2008, Stanford University’s Peter Berkowicz was prophetic about the president’s attitude to the 46 percent who voted McCain-Palin. “There is little in his record – as community organizer, education foundation chair and board member, Illinois state senator, US senator, and Democratic Party primary candidate – to match his conciliatory words,” Berkowicz wrote. And he warned that Obama’s inbred partisanship would be accentuated by a sycophantic press and a laudatory leftwing academia that marginalized anyone who disagreed with it.
Following Obama’s flop in the first presidential debate in early October, even Liberals like Dana Milbank in the Washington Post are starting to recognize the problem: For the past four years Obama has been allowed “to avoid being questioned, maintaining a regal detachment from the media and other sources of dissent and skeptical inquiry.”
The Republican candidate Mitt Romney has the advantage of what I call the “Haifa phenomenon,” the benefit of growing up in an adversarial climate. I have noticed that many of the most original thinkers in religious Zionism were raised in the city once dubbed “red Haifa,” the urban bastion of secular socialist Zionism. Precisely because they did not grow up in an Orthodox hothouse like Jerusalem, they could work with and effectively communicate to a greater diversity of people.
This is true of a string of successful politicians in other countries.
Tony Blair grew up in a home whose political orientation was Conservative.
Helmut Kohl came from industrial North Rhine Westphalia, no Christian Democratic fiefdom.
And you can hardly get Democratically bluer than Romney’s Massachusetts that, back in 1972, was the only state to buck Republican Richard Nixon’s landslide and plump for his Democratic rival George McGovern. Romney has worked and lived in an area where his worldview is in the minority. This gives him an advantage as a communicator and bridge builder over a denizen of the close-minded echo chamber of fiercely partisan Cook County politics.
The writer is a columnist for the Hebrew weekly Besheva.