- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008



Will November bring a presidential election for the ages? Or will the buzz become a drizzle rather than a watershed event in American politics? The reason for the excitement is obvious: the first black American presidential nominee in our history is competing against an opponent who suffered a horrible captivity at the Hanoi Hilton [-] followed by a quarter of a century in a more luxurious form of confinement on Capitol Hill. But there is a larger issue. As Americans recognize, the nation is in grave trouble. Hence, the commitments both Barack Obama and John McCain made to reform and change the system are solemn, serious and urgently needed. And the success or failure of their presidencies will rest on their ability to deliver on these promises.

The looming question is how and whether either candidate can make good on these pledges. Reform and change have been presidential siren songs with long and unhappy histories: They often turn out to be empty rhetoric. Aside from whether differences in terminology between reform and change are substantive or superficial, can they be implemented?

Let us consider three of the many daunting challenges and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to making meaningful reform and change. First, the federal government is not only dysfunctional. Government is broken. The evidence of brokenness is everywhere. Katrina, Iraq and the failure to cope with energy, education, health care, climate change, homeland security and financial crises top the lists. What can a president [-] a single individual [-] do to fix this?

Second [-] and a corollary of the above [-] American politics is no longer about providing good governance. Politics has descended into a process of continuous campaigning that seeks to discredit or preferably demolish the other side in order to win. If you doubt this perversion, read Scott McClellan’s account of how the White House mastered this technique. (Mr. McClellan was president Bush’s former press secretary.)

Third, both political parties have been corrupted by overdoses of dangerous partisanship and ideological extremism. In a book I wrote four years ago with an introduction by Mr. McCain, I observed that one of our political parties had lost its mind and the other its soul. Today, I would amend that observation. Both parties have figuratively lost both their minds and their souls to extremes of left and right and to powerful interest groups.

Irrespective of who wins in November, 80 percent of the public believes that the country is on the wrong track. If this is truly an election for the ages and Messrs. McCain and Obama are serious in their quest to impose effective reform or change and to set the nation on the right track, bold thinking is crucial. Here are three suggestions along that line.

First, we need to establish a real measure of bipartisanship. While it is beguiling to imagine a McCain-(former Senator Sam) Nunn pairing or an Obama and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg ticket, such a display of bipartisanship would probably backfire in today’s poisonous political atmosphere. Instead, both candidates should promise to have a cabinet that is indeed bipartisan well before the election [-] and then uphold that pledge.

Second, to begin repairing a broken government [-] a process that will take time and great patience [-] the president has the authority to take action in the executive branch. But what about Congress? In the wake of corporate scandals, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act held CEOs and board members accountable for certifying the accuracy of company accounting and financial reporting. Congress too must be made accountable for its actions and not only at election time. To restore accountability, the new president should propose a bill to Congress requiring members to swear or affirm that they have read and understand every new bill on which they must vote. If members of Congress cannot make this certification, then they should not be able to vote on it. If members falsely certify this declaration, they will be liable to impeachment and conviction. Clearly, such a bill will provoke a firestorm. But how else to begin reform or change on the Hill?

Finally, in order to engage and induce the American public to turn politics back from permanent campaigns into pursuing good governance, both candidates should embrace the need for mandatory, universal voting sometime during their first term. This November, only about half the voting public will cast their ballots. If 80 to 90 percent or more of eligible Americans voted [-] the majority of whom are centrist [-] the extreme wings of both parties and the influence of interest groups will be nullified. And forcing more Americans to vote should lead to greater interest and involvement by the public.

The nation is arguably at the most critical junction since the Cold War and possibly since the Civil War. Reform and change are essential. But will both candidates be able to deliver? This is the issue of this election.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.



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