The Monitor's View

Voters a step ahead of Bloomberg

New York's mayor wants a bipartisan president, but voters are already pushing in this direction.

In presidential election politics, today is Michael Bloomberg's day to shine. The New York mayor is meeting with former luminaries in both major parties to push the candidates in a bipartisan, centrist direction – or else he might run as an independent. The candidates, however, probably don't need his push.

Why? Because voters are already exerting pressure. In Iowa last week, caucusgoers handed victories to two candidates who were seen as politicians who can bridge America's red-blue divide. New Hampshire, which votes Tuesday, seems similarly interested in such a message.

Democratic caucus-winner Barack Obama has staked his entire campaign on a promise to change Washington, a strategy he calls "the politics of hope." Republican caucus-winner Mike Huckabee, a social conservative and former Baptist minister with a populist twist, is preaching "vertical politics" that lift up all of America. (This, as opposed to "horizontal politics" where Democrats and Republicans scream at each other.)

Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Obama struck a chord with Iowa voters concerned that both parties have long vied for power in a perpetual campaign rather than govern through compromise. They see this long American "war of the roses" as dragging down the country. New Hampshire voters may send a similar signal. There, Obama has caught up to Hillary Clinton in polls, and Republican Sen. John McCain has gained momentum. Senator McCain has a record of working across the aisles (so does Sen. Clinton, and yet she's still seen as a polarizing figure).

Billionaire Bloomberg can finance a third-party campaign any time, and that's his leverage. The former Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent is joining up with such bipartisan elder statesmen as the Democratic former senator from Georgia, Sam Nunn, and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska, to urge a postpartisan, national-unity government.

They seek to end political polarization and find a consensus that will restore America's reputation in the world, rebuild the military, reinstate fiscal discipline, and move the US forward on education and environmental issues. As Republican Richard Cohen, former defense secretary to Bill Clinton, put it: The shared goal "is to get government back to the [political] center."

But voter preferences are already at work here, if slowly. Democrats veered into liberal land in the '60s and '70s, but they were unable to recapture the White House until Bill Clinton pulled them back toward the center.

Is the GOP similarly changing course? Voters rebuked Republicans in the 2006 midterms, mostly over the Iraq war, fiscal largesse, and ethics. Moderate Republicans feel their party has been hijacked by Christian conservatives and foreign-policy hawks. The Bush White House has self-corrected to a degree (examples: a new defense secretary, budget vetoes). Primary voters can hasten the change.

Historically, third-party candidates are unpredictable election spoilers, not winners, who single out an ignored issue. In this case, the issue is one of style and comity. As Iowa indicated, however, the parties may already be moving that way. At this point, it doesn't look like another entrant is necessary.

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