Saturday, June 28, 2008

BOB KERREY: Build a bridge, Barack Obama


I support and will do what I can to help Sen. Barack Obama become our next President. Among other reasons, I believe he has a unique capacity to get world leaders to collaborate with the United States to fight the war on terror, negotiate good trade agreements and get the world on the track of sustainable economic growth.

Still, there is a lot to admire about Sen. John McCain. I agree with many of his ideas, regard him as one of the few political leaders who is willing to take a stand on unpopular issues when the cause demands it, and believe he, too, would make a very good President.

I know that it is unlikely that McCain would be offered or accept a position in President Obama's cabinet. I also know that if and when President Obama is drafting his first State of the Union address - and laying out big policy goals - he is going to need important GOP allies and lots of bipartisan goodwill.

From this comes a modest proposal and an immodest wish: That Obama begin now to look for opportunities to say to McCain: “I agree with you on that.”

This may sound like a small thing or a naïve hope. And I know it would not make for a reliable applause line at the Democratic Party's Denver convention.

But it would be a worthwhile refrain at moments throughout this campaign season, which has already taken on a polarized, partisan and sometimes petty air despite the earlier promise, by both nominees, of a substantive, postpartisan conversation.

This will not require Obama to go wobbly on the core beliefs of the Democratic Party. Nobody will confuse the two party platforms on health care, foreign affairs, social policy or the economy. On these and other issues, he and McCain will have to fight it out in the court of public opinion.

In other cases, though, I hope Obama will understand that agreement is not only possible, it is necessary if the real change we seek is to happen. Indeed, if a Democrat cannot find common ground with John McCain, he is unlikely to find it with any Republican. And if this Democrat - who specializes in gracious gestures - cannot do so in this election year, the chances we will ever see a new kind of American politics emerge are slim to none.

Here, then, is my wish list of some of the things I hope our nominee will say:

- Sen. McCain, I agree with you on Iraq, in one important sense. We cannot abandon our ally and walk away from the region. I remain in favor of withdrawal - because this war is costing us too much in blood and treasure - but I understand that the surge has produced some positive effects. And ultimately, I will need your help to fashion a way to leave Iraq without turning our back on our national interest.

- Sen. McCain, I agree with you in one critical way on the global war on terror. Some Democrats - and Republicans like Ron Paul - minimize the danger posed by violent Islamic fundamentalists. I say we must relentlessly pursue those who have declared themselves to be existential enemies of the United States. I will need your help, and that of other Republicans, to accomplish that objective.

- Sen. McCain, I agree with you on immigration. We need a comprehensive solution to this problem. I will need your help to accomplish that objective.

- Sen. McCain, I admire the courage you've shown in bucking your party to support carbon trading. Our behavior is warming the planet and threatening our very existence. We need stronger domestic and international agreements. I will need your help to accomplish that objective.

- Sen. McCain, I agree with your demand that Congress change the way it organizes oversight of our intelligence and homeland security efforts. I will need your help to accomplish that objective.

- Sen. McCain, I appreciate your leadership on campaign finance reform, and my opting out of public financing isn't meant to abandon the system. There is a lot more that needs to be done to clean up the influence of money in politics. I will need your help to accomplish that objective.

Sen. Obama talks eloquently about embracing the best ideas no matter where they come from. He's right: Reflexive rejection of every Democratic idea by the Republican candidate, and vice-versa, is unwise - especially given the short period of time the President-elect will have to confront many contentious issues.

George W. Bush promised, but failed, to change the tone in Washington. Barack Obama can do it. He is far more likely to succeed if he starts today.

Kerrey, a Democrat and former U.S. senator from Nebraska, is president of the New School.

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