It’s the (lack of) unity, stupid!

November 5th, 2012

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This piece was originally featured on Reuters.

What we expect to hear in the closing days of a campaign is a call to arms.  Instead, what we’re hearing from both sides is a call to disarm.

“I’m going to have to reach across the aisle and meet with good Democrats who love America just like you love America,” Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney told a recent campaign rally in Virginia.  “And there are good Democrats like that.”

“In the end, we’re all in this together,” President Barack Obama said at a rally in Wisconsin.  “We rise and fall as one nation, one people.”

Why the sudden craving for unity?  Because that’s the issue that got Obama elected.  He became a star when he told the 2004 Democratic National Convention, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America.  There’s the United States of America.”

Unity is also the issue of the moment.  Unless the president and Congress can agree on some kind of budget deal in the next few months, the country will go over the fiscal cliff — huge tax increases and mandatory cuts in domestic and defense spending.  It’s unity or calamity.

Unity is also the promise Obama has failed most conspicuously to deliver.  The country is more divided today than it was four years ago. Obama is getting 91 percent support from Democrats and 7 percent from Republicans, according to Gallup — an 84-point difference.

That’s the largest partisan division we’ve ever seen.  Bigger than it was when President George W. Bush was running for reelection in 2004 (76 points).  Bigger than it was when President Bill Clinton got impeached (50 points).

You can get a pretty good argument going about why Obama failed.  Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), speaking at a Republican fundraising dinner earlier this year, said about Obama, “We have not seen such a divisive figure in modern American history as we have over the last three and a half years.”

It wasn’t Obama’s style that was divisive, however.  It was his policies.  Republicans saw the economic stimulus, health care reform, government bailouts and the mortgage rescue plan as acts of ideological aggression — an unprecedented expansion of big government, passed with almost no Republican support.

Democrats argue that congressional Republicans simply refused to do business with this president.  They regularly cite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 2010 statement, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Actually, the last four presidents each promised to bring the country together.  They all failed.  President George H.W. Bush offered “a kinder, gentler” politics.  He lasted one term.  Clinton called himself “a New Democrat.”  He got impeached.  George W. Bush said he would be “a uniter, not a divider.”  He was anything but.  Obama got a Tea Party revolt one month after he took office and unveiled his program.

This country has been becoming more and more politically divided for the past 50 years.  The problem isn’t Obama.  The problem is the problem.

Last week’s storm gave Obama a priceless opportunity to reclaim his credentials as a uniter.  He received effusive praise from two Republican governors: Chris Christie of New Jersey (“I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion for our state.”) and Bob McDonnell of Virginia (“It says a lot about the president and it makes me feel good to be an American that people have had the right focus.”).

It also brought Obama a valuable endorsement from New York’s independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Obama said, in an echo of his 2004 convention speech, “There are no Democrats or Republicans during a storm — just fellow Americans.”

For his part, Romney stopped using the word “conservative” and started talking sympathetically about the working poor and single mothers.  He was also touting his record of working with Democratic legislators when he was governor of Massachusetts (“I knew from the very beginning, to get anything done I had to reach across the aisle”).

Of course, Democratic legislators in Massachusetts were willing to work with Governor Romney — something that can’t be said of Republicans in Congress and Obama.

And probably not of Democrats in Congress — if Romney becomes president.  Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last week, “Mitt Romney’s fantasy that Senate Democrats will work with him to pass his ‘severely conservative’ agenda is laughable.”

Moreover, if Romney had such a successful record as governor, why isn’t he even competing in Massachusetts this year? If Romney wins, he will be the first president since James K. Polk in 1844 not to carry his home state.  Actually, Romney can claim four home states — Michigan, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and California.  He may not carry any.

No one really knows which Romney would be president if he is elected — the “severely conservative” Republican primary candidate, or the moderate governor of Massachusetts who seems to have suddenly resurfaced at the end of the campaign.

So we have one candidate who promised to be a uniter and failed and another candidate who promises to be bipartisan but can’t be trusted.

Bloomberg summed up the voters’ dilemma perfectly when he said, “If the 1994 or 2003 version of Mitt Romney were running for president, I may well have voted for him because, like so many other independents, I have found the past four years to be, in a word, disappointing.”