In this backbiting, base-enhancing, acutely partisan political age, is it even possible for a candidate who espouses a theme of unity and encourages bipartisan consensus and compromise to get elected president? Conventional wisdom says no. But Bob Beckel and Cal Thomas, of all people, say yes. Beckel, a liberal Democrat, and Thomas, a conservative Republican, are longtime pundits and political rivals who have spent years as sparring partners in debates but have come together to write a conciliatory new book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America" (William Morrow/HarperCollins).
Inspired by Beckel and Thomas's USA Today column, the book is at times pedantic, but it's informative and even healing, and surprisingly funny. Tellingly, in the book's five cover photos, which look like publicity stills from a summer stock production of "The Odd Couple," the co-authors visibly bicker in four of them. In only one picture are they smiling and looking as though they've actually stopped the partisan war they decry inside the book.
In an interview with NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno, Beckel, a political consultant, television host and professor of political strategy at George Washington University, and Thomas, a syndicated columnist, radio host and author of 10 books, including "The Wit and Wisdom of Cal Thomas," talk about their motives for writing the book, their unlikely friendship, the perils of political polarization, and how the current presidential candidates can and should get past partisan sniping, restore civility and move the country forward. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You've both been among the more outspoken partisans on the American media landscape for years. What prompted the two of you to seek common ground and write this book?
Cal Thomas: Bob and I had debated and screamed at each other on television for years. But as we sat and talked in green rooms, we began to realize that even though our politics are different there are things we agree on. That's what's missing in the political debate now: personal relationships. We're not raging moderates, we're not compromising our principles, we're just finding common ground. We both want to move the ball ahead and no longer be frozen without hope.
Bob Beckel: There's a mea culpa involved in this. I was on (CNN's) "Crossfire." I was one of those people adding fuel to this partisan fire. We were polarizers before polarizing was cool. But it got to the point where it just paralyzed everything. And now the fringes of both parties have taken hold of the megaphone, and the voters are tired of it and so am I. On the personal side, I was going through a tough time in my life, and Cal stepped in and helped me out. Out of this friendship came the column and this book. When we first came up with this idea to talk about finding common ground, people thought we were out of our minds. But it appears now as if we were on to something. The candidates are talking about it, and the voters are demanding it.
So what were the catalysts for this partisan war that you say is destroying America?
Thomas: Money and power, mostly. There are people who make big money and gain pseudo-influence by stirring the pot, by polarizing the electorate, from cable TV shows to fund-raising letters that spread the idea that a policy difference means you love the country less than your opponent. People on my side have promoted this idea that if you are a Democrat and a liberal you love America less. I find that offensive.
Beckel: The strategy of demonizing your opponent that [Karl] Rove implemented, and the Democrats too, feeds upon itself. It's what drove moderates away from the voting booths. The polarizers are a small percentage, but they yell the loudest. It works to increase the base, but it's a short-lived success.
You say in the book that a candidate who embraces ideas from both parties and seeks compromise and consensus can actually win in 2008. Is there such a candidate?
Thomas: Barack Obama has taken the lead on this with his "Audacity of Hope," whose first 40 pages are lifted right out of our book [laughs].
Beckel: John McCain, also. Besides Obama, he's as close as they come to a consensus-seeking, common-ground candidate. The point is, whoever embraces this concept will have a better chance of winning this election. I'd say that 7 to 10 points nationally will go to the one who most effectively embraces the idea of common ground. They will be rewarded in November.
But along the presidential campaign trail, the search for common ground that candidates like Obama and Mike Huckabee are espousing is hindered by the increasing amount of negative campaigning and sniping among the candidates. We all know it's about to get really nasty out there, right?
Beckel: Yes, nastier before it gets better. Right now they are all dealing with polarized party voters, the ones who go to the caucuses and the primaries. On the other hand, in Iowa and New Hampshire these voters already showed that they are breaking free from this way of thinking.
This past week Hillary Clinton and Obama verbally sparred and even injected some racial tension into the race. How are opposing parties expected to find common ground if even members of the same party can't?
Thomas: I went through this when I worked with [Walter] Mondale in 1984 against Jesse Jackson. When you divide the black vote between white and black candidates there is always tension. Clinton and Obama are playing on dangerous ground here. In 2008 things are different. They will find that the negative reaction is so severe and runs so counter to seeking consensus and finding common ground, it will hurt them. This debate may lose Clinton South Carolina, where the electorate is 50 percent black.
On the GOP side, partisanship itself is being called into question, with some candidates accusing Huckabee and others of not being "true" Republicans. Again, they seem to be forgetting their common ground and focusing instead on their differences, yes?
Thomas: Yes, but part of that is the result of the fact that we've not had a presidential campaign like this, where both parties are truly uncertain as to who their nominee will be, in a long time.
Beckel: But let's also keep in mind that Republicans as well as Democrats are breaking from party orthodoxy. Even Huckabee is expressing concern for workers and taking on corporations, and on the Democratic side neither Obama nor Clinton is willing to go too far left on the war and other issues. It's already happening. The concrete is cracking around the feet of the hard right and the hard left.
What are some other issues on which partisan Democrats and Republicans can find common ground?
Thomas: Poverty, war, terrorism, immigration. Bob and I wrestled with immigration, specifically, but we've come to a compromise that is best for the country, just as our lawmakers need to do. But before you address specific issues, you have to start the process with goodwill; you have to build a relationship, then find common ground. Both sides have to agree that there's a problem first. Bob is not on the other side, he's my fellow American. The "other side" is the Taliban and people who are trying to kill us.
Beckel: I suspect we will see immigration legislation that calls for the securing of our borders but with a mandated vote on a guest-worker program. Another issue that I see people coming together on is health-care reform. It will happen. Democrats have moved to a mix of a government-funded and free-market system, as have Republicans. These are two immediate issues that I think will be at the forefront of the next administration, because the people are demanding that we find common ground and get it done.
Many of the most effective American political leaders, the ones who are remembered most kindly by history, have managed to transcend their party and appeal on a more universal as well as gut level. Do we have any such leaders now?
Thomas: Reagan really took on the Democrats, and he was not popular for that, but he was a nice guy who battled Tip [O'Neill] all day then had drinks with him that evening. You can't do that now; we just don't have that civility now. The polarizers won't let you get away with it. There are a lot of people of goodwill in Congress, on both sides, and they are tired of the anger and divisiveness, but they feel constrained.
Beckel: Obama meets that mold; both he and McCain do. If they don't get the nomination, whoever does will grab hold of this idea. One of the messages of the Michael Dukakis campaign was that the era of polarization is over. He was just 20 years too early.
What has the reaction so far been to this book by your fellow partisans?
Thomas: Most of them have ignored it because they've learned that screaming and yelling will only promote it. And the media have largely ignored it for reasons of their own. They talk about common ground, but they want division too, because it sells.
Beckel: I've heard from a few partisans on my side, and they haven't liked it. In this book I take on Harry Reid, among others. There's a vested interest in keeping the status quo where it is. But the idea has taken hold among voters. The timing is right. We're starting to get calls and e-mails and letters saying, "Hey, maybe you guys aren't nuts." Institutionally, there's still a huge barrier to accepting this idea, because it takes away many people's reason for living and their paychecks. An industry has grown up around polarization.
Do you fear this book will alienate those in your own parties?
Thomas: No. I had it out with them already after my 1999 book "Blinded by Might." They fired everything they could at me then. ["Common Ground"] is a well-balanced book whose principle is to expose the real motives of the polarizers. It's important to reiterate that I've not changed my views. Bob hasn't either. With mutual respect and admiration can come a new day in America that will promote the welfare of the most people instead of the polarizers. These people who scream the loudest about how much they love this country are in fact behaving in ways that show they love it the least.
Beckel: You're being a little Pollyannaish now, Cal [laughs]. But, yes, we've both gotten it from our sides. We were them. We know their game plan because we wrote parts of it. We've gone on TV and spewed the lines. But we think the gig is about up.
What are some of the hopeful signs that we are turning the corner and looking for common ground?
Thomas: I go back to the polls. Less than six months after the new Democratic-controlled Congress took office, the ratings started plummeting. For so long polarizers just got away with it, people didn't pay attention after the elections. But people are paying attention now. They're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. They realize they've been spun. We are hearing promises from both parties to change the tone in Washington. We're seeing the new day of bipartisanship emerge. To me this is a very encouraging sign.
Beckel: Obama wins with this message in Iowa, a state that is 95 percent white. McCain wins with this message as well. The time has come.
So how's the book doing?
Thomas: Our publisher tells us it's doing well. But I'll tell you, it's selling better out there in the country than it is in Washington.