WASHINGTON — On Thursday, while the nation still awaited the results of the bitterly contested presidential race, Gov. Tom Carper of Delaware, a Democrat, climbed into a carriage with the Republican senator he had defeated in Tuesday’s voting, William Roth, for the "Return Day" ceremonies in Georgetown, Del. At the end of the day, the rival party chairmen literally buried a hatchet in a box of sand. All of them were honoring a tradition that goes back two centuries. But they were also invoking a spirit that is desperately needed these days — a sense that our common bonds are stronger than our differences.
This nation has rarely appeared more divided than it does right now, even though no single issue dominates the political debate, as slavery did in the first half of the 19th century or the welfare state did for a half century after 1930.
Both the House and Senate are split down the middle, with mathematical precision. The presidential vote was about as close as it could be. Even at the grass-roots level, there is parity between Republicans and Democrats in the legislatures.
However you sliced the election returns, you saw division. Men voted one way; women, the other. The races divided in their partisan preferences. The cities went Democratic; the small towns and rural areas, Republican. The suburbs, the buffer zone of politics, split evenly between Al Gore and George Bush — a phenomenon you could see with your eyes as neighbors planted lawn signs for the opposing candidates.
As Benjamin Barber, the Rutgers University student of American politics and society, said, "There are two Americas, and when you look at the electoral map, the division has never been clearer." Barber said that a cultural divide underlies the geographic. "One is an old-fashioned America of traditional values. The other wants a much more open, diverse society, less judgmental of people. One America wanted to impeach and remove (President) Clinton; the other wanted to exonerate him."
His reference to impeachment is significant. Even though the Clinton scandals never became an explicit issue in the presidential race, their shadow loomed large. Almost half the voters — 44 percent — told exit-poll interviewers that those scandals were very important or somewhat important to them in this election, even though Clinton’s name was not on the ballot. They voted overwhelmingly for Bush, who had closed every speech with a promise to restore honor and dignity to the White House. Those who minimized the importance of the Clinton scandals went for Gore.
Governing a nation so evenly divided in its partisan preferences will be an enormous challenge. But it is one that must be met — for the world’s sake as well as our own. This nation has responsibilities it cannot shirk.
And there are good reasons to believe that the challenge can be met. As Michael Sandel, the Harvard sociologist, told me, "The election returns show us a country that is evenly divided, but not deeply divided." On the central question of the campaign, the proper role of government in relation to the economy, "the candidates crowded the center, while protesting that their positions were very distinct," Sandel said.
Vin Weber, the former Republican congressman from Minnesota, made a parallel point. "There are big arguments," he said, "but also big areas of agreement. No one wants to bring back the old welfare system. No one but Pat Buchanan is arguing for isolationism. Both major candidates agree on monetary policy, on trade policy, on paying down the debt, stabilizing Social Security and providing some kind of tax cuts. In the past, any one of these issues would have been the basis for the whole campaign."
The question, then, is whether the new government in Washington will move ahead on those areas of agreement — or waste its energy in partisan disputes. The answer will come from the bottom up, more than from the top down.
Two years ago, meeting the newly elected House members for the first time, I was struck by their tone. These were not the ideologues of 1994. Republicans and Democrats alike, they had watched with their constituents the bitter House impeachment debate — and wanted no more of it.
By themselves, they were not enough to change the tone. But there are more like them among the freshman senators and representatives I have met — Democrats like Carper, a notably effective and nonpartisan leader in his state and in the National Governors’ Association, and Republicans like Mark Kirk of Illinois, the Navy Reserve officer and former congressional staffer who shares the temperament of his retiring boss, Rep. John Edward Porter, admired and trusted on both sides of the aisle.
Carper and Kirk are of different parties, but both are classic suburban moderates. They and their counterparts can make this thing work.