A bid to build centrism in US politics

Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg are pushing efforts to bridge the political divide.

From the podium came fighting words. The target of all the punching: America's partisan politics.

First up was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, delivering a scathing admonition: "The politics of partisanship and the resulting inaction and excuses have paralyzed decisionmaking," he told a group of some 200 national politicos and guests. We can turn around … our wrongheaded course, if we start basing our actions on ideas [and] shared values … without regard to party."

The next day, his partner in taking to task the political climate, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), echoed: "There really is no more urgent issue facing America today than … bridging the political divide."

The two politicians, used as bookends for a conference titled, "Ceasefire!" have become national poster boys for a nascent movement to restore statesmanship and the art of negotiation to a polarized political scene – at least on the state and city levels. Some call it "postpartisanship," a term repeated by Governor Schwarzenegger, whose job-approval ratings have soared since he began reaching out to Democratic lawmakers on initiatives in California.

Others, such as Mayor Bloomberg – the former Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent – call it simply "nonpartisan leadership." The emphasis is on ideas over ideology, building trust instead of enmity with opposing politicians, embracing innovation with more regard to citizens than to which party thought of it first – or who gets credit. The idea also plays into the yearning of an increasingly frustrated voting public for another principle: Get it done.

"Arnold is the perfect example of the moment for broad coalition-building going on outside Washington," Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn. "Bloomberg is providing the public argument and the rhetoric about what is wrong with the partisan, national political system," he adds, describing Washington politics as "essentially warfare between two armed camps."

Bloomberg, too, has reversed a dreadful job-approval rating, below 20 percent. After a series of get-it-done initiatives – from a crackdown on illegal guns to bans on smoking and trans-fats to affordable housing initiatives – his rating is now in the 70s.

The New York mayor and the California governor are hammering a note that resonates with the public. Seventy-five percent like leaders who are willing to compromise, and 60 percent like leaders whose positions are a mix of liberal and conservative, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington.

"The analysis [of Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger] is exactly correct," says Doug Bailey, cofounder of Unity08, a group that wants to nominate a bipartisan "unity ticket" for the 2008 presidential election, using a first-ever online convention. "The people know the system is broken at a time when there are more crucial issues in front of the government than at any point in our lifetimes. Yet they know the two parties can't sit down and talk in any effective way."

The best records of reach-across-the-aisle politicians have been at state and local levels, many experts say. Schwarzenegger has been leading the pack. After several stumbles in his first two years, he appointed a Democrat as his chief of staff last year. He has since made headlines with global warming and healthcare initiatives, prison reform, and a state infrastructure overhaul.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) has won sweeping changes in Arizona's Child Protective Services and saw to the funding of full-day kindergarten, teacher raises, and workforce curriculum. Several other mayors and governors in both parties have taken on issues including illegal immigration, energy independence, healthcare, education, and childhood obesity.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), too, is achieving results. As speaker of the California Assembly, he worked with Republicans to create the nation's first assault weapons' ban, a giant urban parks initiative, and the largest school bond measure in state history. As mayor, Mr. Villaraigosa has won a reputation as conciliator in labor, education, and transportation disputes.

"Every single day, local and state leaders are proving that the partisan divide is not so wide," said Villaraigosa at the University of Southern California political conference.

Evidence of a new center in politics is somewhat slim, some say. Bloomberg, Schwarzenegger, Governor Napolitano, and others are responding to the political exigencies of the moment – compromise or get nothing done.

"As far as postpartisan politics, is there anything new here?" asks John Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "One can go back decades and find many governors and mayors winning in areas dominated by the opposite party: for example Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay in New York, and many mountain state Democrats. In most cases, they've worked with the opposition party because they had no other choice."

One reason postpartisan ideas have a harder time gaining currency nationally is that those who vote in nominating primaries are more liberal or conservative than the general voting public. Eventual nominees feel beholden to those who get them to office.

"I would argue that many of the likely party nominees for president – especially Hillary Clinton – are almost certain to continue the deep partisan divide that has characterized America through the Clinton and Bush terms," says Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia.

He and others say social issues such as gay rights and abortion remain major sources of conflict nationwide with little room for compromise. The Iraq war and immigration are also polarizing issues.

"At the state level, the issues of education and transportation can be less partisan, and governors get the benefit," says Dr. Sabato. "But when these unifying governors run for president (like the cases of Clinton and Bush), they have to take stands in the culture wars and on matters of war and peace."

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