Exploiting a deep well of voter revulsion over partisan gridlock in Washington, Sen. Barack Obama is promising to do something that has not been done in modern U.S. politics: unite a coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents behind an agenda of sweeping change.
But in pitching himself as a "post-partisan" politician, Obama (D-Ill.) is only the latest in a string of presidential candidates promising to remake Washington into a city that sings in unison. George W. Bush was to be a uniter, not a divider. Bill Clinton was going to put people first. Even Richard M. Nixon, on the day after the 1968 election, invoked a sign he had seen during the campaign that said, "Bring Us Together," and said that was the goal of his administration.
Washington, however, has a way of consigning such rhetorical hopes to the partisan waste bin.
"Words are not actions," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday night during a Democratic debate in New Hampshire, as she called for a "reality brake" on her rivals' rhetoric. "As beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action."
"He believes he's a game-changer, but I don't believe the game has changed," said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, dismissing Obama's transformational pledges as naive. "It's captivating. It's intoxicating, but it's not going to last."
In Washington, bipartisanship for decades has been synonymous with compromise and incrementalism. When it has worked, both parties have sacrificed some elements of ideology for modest steps forward. The Clinton White House could not win passage of universal health care, so it settled for a federal-state partnership to insure the children of the working poor. The Republican "revolutionaries" of 1994 could not abolish a Cabinet agency, such as the Education Department, so they settled for slowing the growth rate of Medicare and abolishing Congress's Office of Technology Assessment.
Obama is promising something very different, what skeptics call an oxymoron: sweeping bipartisan change.
"I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes, not incremental changes, not small changes," Obama said Saturday night. "I think that there are a whole host of Republicans, and certainly independents, who have lost trust in their government, who don't believe anybody is listening to them, who are staggering under rising costs of health care, college education, don't believe what politicians say. And we can draw those independents and some Republicans into a working coalition, a working majority for change."
Republicans in Washington view Obama's "post-partisan" political appeal with a mixture of skepticism and fear. They are skeptical, they say, because the first-term senator's thin record has shown virtually no sign of bipartisanship. They are fearful because his appeal just might work.
"It's clear he is a phenomenon," said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a conservative scrapper who revels in Washington's partisan warfare. "He will use style and grace to achieve liberal goals, which is absolutely politically brilliant but intellectually dishonest."
"Any new president is going to have a honeymoon period, and with his communication skills and the foundation that he appears to be wanting to lay -- 'Look, I'm above partisanship; I want to be everybody's president' -- I'm concerned he could push through some policy things that I fundamentally disagree with," said Rep. Jim McCrery (La.), the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Liberals have their own trepidations about a candidate who exudes an air of compromise, even if he doesn't necessarily propose it. "I like my Democrats a bit more hard-edged, at least at this moment in time," read one posting on the liberal Web site DailyKos yesterday. "I never got over the stolen election of 2000 and I don't think I ever will. I was hoping for someone, as a candidate, who conveyed that they understood why that matters."
Beyond the partisan polls, Obama's appeal is clear, said Trent Lott, who retired last month as the Senate's second-ranking Republican to begin a career as a Washington lobbyist -- K Street being a favorite foil of Obama's when he talks about what's wrong with Washington.
Americans are tired of the bickering and want progress, Lott said. But he said Republicans are not about to concede to Obama's vision of progress, a vision they see as classically liberal: federally run health care, government-mandated energy changes and a rapid pullout from Iraq.
"Barack is tapping into a feeling that he has heard out on the trail, and it's very real," Lott said. "But if he's talking about bipartisan, sweeping big government, I don't think that's what people are talking about."
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said bipartisanship tends to produce the worst that Washington has to offer -- transactional politics where lawmakers scratch one other's backs without regard to the bigger picture. Pork-barrel spending goes unchallenged because members of both political parties know that by objecting to one project, they jeopardize their own, Flake said.
"Partisanship is underrated. There is a time and place for it, and more time and place than we realize," he said.
In Obama's first years in the Senate, he showed little interest in the middle, where moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats coalesce, often to thwart their leadership.
In 2006, he won a 95 percent rating from Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal rating group, and a 93 percent rating from the AFL-CIO. In 2005, both groups gave him ratings of 100 percent. In contrast, the American Conservative Union ranked him at 8 percent, the same figure awarded to Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), two unapologetic liberals.
Obama's aides and supporters say voters should look beyond traditional measurements. Campaign spokesman Bill Burton said that Obama assembled a bipartisan coalition in the Illinois Senate to expand health insurance for children and approve more stringent ethics rules, and that he took that approach to Washington to help win passage last year of the most significant ethics and lobbying rule changes since Watergate.
"If he can do that in the state Senate and the United States Senate, just imagine what he could do as president," Burton said.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.The first attempt at ethics reform showed the limits of Obama's legislative skills. The bill presented on the chamber floor in 2006 was far weaker than the one he had worked on with Feingold and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Those three were among just eight no votes when the bill passed overwhelmingly in March 2006, but died in a House-Senate conference.
Shortly after the 2006 elections, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) pulled Feingold into his office. "Russ, I want you to write the 'gold standard bill,' and I want Barack to work with you," Feingold recalled Reid saying.
Obama and Feingold convened a conference call with newly elected Senate Democrats, several of whom who had campaigned as reformers. They secured support for a stringent bill banning all gifts from lobbyists and prohibiting lawmakers from paying cheap rates to travel on corporate jets (a perk Obama has acknowledged he heartily enjoyed in his first year in the Senate).
The final bill passed with more than 80 votes and was signed into law last August. It had some loopholes, including a "widely attended" event exemption allowing lobbyists to pick up tabs at events so long as they are not sit-down meals.
But Feingold and most reform advocates praise the final package. "When Senator Obama says this is the strongest ethics reform legislation, he's absolutely right," he said. "It's a genuine accomplishment."
McCrery, the Louisiana Republican, said the next president will confront problems that will beg for bipartisan solutions, such as funding Social Security and Medicare.
"He's very good. He's very smooth. He has charisma," McCrery said of Obama. "If he's elected and he chooses to use those qualities not only to win elections but to lead, I think he'll have a great opportunity."
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.