Voters have been astonishingly clear. In 2000, they elected George W. Bush after he promised to change the tone in Washington. In 2008, they elected Barack Obama after he promised to move the country beyond stale partisan debates.
In this year’s first presidential debate, surveys show that viewers loved Mitt Romney’s talk of professionalism and bipartisanship.
In other words, primary campaigns are won by the candidate who can most convincingly champion the party’s agenda, but general election campaigns are won by the candidate who can most plausibly fix the political system. So let’s think carefully about what sort of leader it would take to break through the partisan dysfunction and make Washington work.
First, it doesn’t take moderation. It’s important to distinguish between moderation and pragmatism. Ted Kennedy was nobody’s definition of a moderate, yet he had the ability to craft large and effective compromises on issues ranging from immigration to education and health care.
Second, the governing craftsman has to have a dual consciousness. He has to be able to distinguish between a campaign consciousness and a governing consciousness. The campaign consciousness involves simplifying your own positions, exaggerating your opponent’s weaknesses and magnifying the differences between your relative positions. In governing mode, you have to do the reverse of all these things.
Third, it does require the ability to count. The governing craftsman has to be able to know how many votes each side possesses. He has to avoid the narcissistic question: What do I want? He has to ask instead: Given this correlation of forces, what is the landscape offering me?
Fourth, the craftsman has to avoid the trap of thinking that right makes right. He has to avoid saying to himself: My position is objectively the correct one. Therefore, all I have to do is get the facts out there, win the debate and then I’ll get everything I want.
Fifth, the craftsman has to distinguish between existential issues and business issues. Winston Churchill would have made a terrible mistake if he had compromised with the appeasers. On the other hand, Dan Rostenkowski and Robert Packwood were absolutely right to compromise to get the tax reform of 1986 passed.
The craftsman has to understand that in the middle of the fight almost every issue will feel like an existential issue, though, in reality, 98 percent of legislative conflicts are business issues.
Sixth, the craftsman has to be able to read a calendar. It is psychically painful to move away from your heartfelt position. It is easier to say to yourself: I can’t get what I want now, but, if I just wait, I’ll win the next election and get everything after that. Participants in the Middle East peace process do this: They postpone their dreams while maximizing their demands.
The craftsman has to understand that these distant fantasies almost never come true. It is usually better to make a small step next month than do nothing in hopes of a total victory next generation.
Seventh, the craftsman has to be socially promiscuous. Dealmaking is about friendship. The craftsman has to work on relationships all day every day. It’s not enough to talk to your adversaries in negotiations. You have to talk to them when nothing is happening.
Eighth, the craftsman has to betray his side. It is relatively easy to cut a deal with the leader of the other party. It is really hard to sell that deal to the rigid people in your own party. Therefore, the craftsman has to enter into a conspiracy with the other party’s leader in order to manipulate the party bases. The leaders have to invent stories so that each base thinks it has won.
Ninth, the craftsman has to understand that stylistic pragmatism has to be accompanied by substance pragmatism. Barack Obama really wanted to move beyond stale battle lines. But he offered a conventional Democratic agenda. If you want to break the partisan stagnation, you have to come up with an unexpected policy agenda that will scramble the categories.
Finally, a craftsman has to be tough inside and soft outside. It hurts to cede ground. The craftsman has to be gritty enough to endure the pain that always accompanies compromise, yet sensitive enough to recognize and sympathize with the other party’s pain.
Voters are right to demand craftsmanship, given the brutal trade-offs that loom ahead. But, boy, it’s hard.
DAVID BROOKS is a columnist for The New York Times.