Wisdom from a bygone era

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Itinerant politicians and journalists have learned they can expect a warm welcome and a stimulating evening when they visit the hilltop home of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics here at the University of Kansas.

When my turn came Monday night, I found it an intriguing place to assess the closing stage of the 2010 campaign. What I learned was no surprise. Kansas is about to join the national trend. The governorship, which had been held for years by Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama’s secretary of health and human services, is almost certainly going to revert to the GOP. The one Democrat in the House delegation is retiring this year and his wife, who is trying to hold the seat, is unlikely to succeed.

So we did not spend much time disputing what the returns here and nationally will show on Nov. 2. Instead, Bill Lacy, the old Washington hand who runs the institute, focused the discussion on the significance for President Obama and the Republicans of what is almost universally expected.

As it happened, my airplane reading en route to Kansas was the Sunday New York Times Magazine article by Peter Baker, my friend and former Post colleague, titled “The Education of a President.” Baker had spent the late summer and early fall interviewing members of Congress and the senior White House staff on the lessons they had learned from the first two years of Obama’s term. And Baker had been given a rare, two-hour interview with the president to inquire about Obama’s own answer to the question about the relationship between the president and the Republicans in the remainder of his term.

Baker is far too shrewd a reporter and analyst to believe that the answers he received in these pre-election interviews will be as candid and as full as those to come after the returns are in. But the mindset he found will shape that outcome. Baker’s story offers the best evidence of Obama’s likely reaction to this impending defeat.

Here is the key sentence, in which Obama expressed his belief that an election does not have to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which any Republican gains can be measured in defeats for the president and his agenda.

Wrote Baker: “Obama expressed optimism to me that he could make common cause with Republicans after the midterm elections. ‘It may be that regardless of what happens after this election, they feel more responsible,’ he said, ‘either because they didn’t do as well as they anticipated, and so the strategy of just saying no to everything and sitting on the sidelines and throwing bombs didn’t work for them, or they did reasonably well, in which case the American people are going to be looking to them to offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way.’”

A Republican partisan could characterize that as a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose proposition but in the setting of the Dole Institute, I was not inclined to be cynical.

From my seat, I was looking directly at the large photo mural of Sen. Dole and his frequent partner, Rep. Gerald Ford of Michigan, the House minority leader. One of them — Ford — achieved the presidency only briefly, when Richard Nixon was forced to resign. The other — Dole — failed each time he ran. But no one regards them as political failures, because they realized that victory is counted in more than vote totals. They won the ultimate tests of character for two reasons. They did not sacrifice their political principles. And they acknowledged that they shared the responsibility for making this system of government work.

It helped that they came to Washington as young military veterans, survivors of a war against an implacable enemy. They knew the difference between the Nazis, who were truly evil, and the Democrats, who were simply fellow Americans with different political beliefs.

For Obama and the Republicans to establish a productive post-election atmosphere, it may require nothing more than the recapture of that wisdom of their political forebears. Behave as if you are veterans and today’s political disputes will recede to their proper size.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is davidbroderwashpost.com.

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