Vot­ers’ choice: po­lar­izer or the prob­lem-solvers

The Mercury News Weekend - - OTHER VIEWS - By E. J. Dionne Jr. E. J. Dionne is a Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist.

GLENALLEN, VA. » Lis­ten­ing to the con­ver­sa­tion at Robert Jones’ Park­side Bar­ber Shop, you’d never know we live in a deeply di­vided coun­try that seems in­ca­pable of dis­cussing ev­ery­day chal­lenges.

Jones, a suc­cess­ful lo­cal en­tre­pre­neur, hosted a group of busi­ness lead­ers and ed­u­ca­tors here to pon­der how to pre­pare the mil­len­nial work­force. They of­fered their ideas to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­date Abi­gail Span­berger.

Both are on the bal­lot Nov. 6, but the hour-and-a-half ex­change on a Satur­day evening didn’t sound like what we think of as pol­i­tics th­ese days.

It was all about how ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions at all lev­els — and em­ploy­ers them­selves — could en­dow stu­dents with the skills to suc­ceed and pro­vide en­ter­prises large and small with the well-trained la­bor they need to thrive. The di­a­logue was de­tailed and prac­ti­cal, with a “we’re all in this to­gether” spirit.

It had noth­ing to do with the 2018 cam­paign. And it had ev­ery­thing to do with the 2018 cam­paign.

As vot­ing ap­proaches, Pres­i­dent Trump is try­ing to drive the na­tional di­a­logue to­ward the ethno-na­tion­al­ist themes he hopes might scare vot­ers into back­ing Repub­li­can can­di­dates.

OnWed­nes­day morn­ing he was back to tweets about his fa­vorite topic, the im­mi­grant “car­a­vans” from Cen­tral Amer­ica, and charg­ing — with­out any ev­i­dence — that they are “made up of some very bad thugs and gang mem­bers.”

Any nor­mal pres­i­dent would be ashamed of rip­ping the na­tion apart on this is­sue soon af­ter the slaugh­ter at the Tree of Life syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh. The at­tack was un­leashed by an anti-Semitic gun­man who ap­peared mo­ti­vated by the work of a Jewish group on be­half of refugees. But Trump is an ab­nor­mal — and norm­less — pres­i­dent. This is all he has.

Yet Demo­cratic can­di­dates aren’t tak­ing the bait. They are in­sist­ing that the coun­try is ex­hausted by ac­ri­mony, by the cries of right-wing ide­o­logues and by the eva­sion of the dayto-day is­sues — health care, ed­u­ca­tion, job train­ing — that they be­lieve most Amer­i­cans want their politi­cians to grap­ple with.

“I think you’re more likely to pull peo­ple to­gether in the con­text of solv­ing prob­lems,” Kaine said in an in­ter­view af­ter the la­bor-force ses­sion. It’s a for­mula that has worked for him this year as he has built a large lead over Repub­li­can Corey Ste­wart. Ste­wart may be, as Kaine noted, one of the “most pure” Trumpian can­di­dates on the bal­lot this year, given Ste­wart’s long-stand­ing anti-im­mi­grant ac­tivism.

Kaine said next week he is look­ing for “a wave of dig­nity and com­pas­sion and re­spect and com­mu­nity.”

Span­berger is a 39-year-old vet­eran of the CIA, and one of four Democrats in Vir­ginia who could take a Repub­li­can seat. She faces tea party Re- pub­li­can in­cum­bent Dave Brat. It has be­come a neck-and-neck race in an area where, un­til re­cently, Democrats were barely a pres­ence.

She doesn’t bring up Trump and doesn’t have to. Should her cam­paign and the Democrats pre­vail, the vic­tory “will be about solv­ing prob­lems and work­ing with other peo­ple and work­ing across party lines.” Cit­i­zens, she said, are tired of politi­cians “who are just ide­o­logues, and try­ing to stop things.”

What of­ten looks na­tion­ally like a split-level cam­paign is ac­tu­ally one cam­paign. Its clos­ing days high­light the two very dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to pol­i­tics vot­ers con­front.

The pipe bombs sent in the mail and the tragedy in Pitts­burgh brought home the costs of Trump’s style of pol­i­tics. Our na­tion is pay­ing a steep price for lead­er­ship that knows only how to di­vide Amer­i­cans.

The di­a­logue in a subur­ban bar­ber­shop brought to­gether peo­ple across ra­cial and eth­nic lines to con­sider how to lift up the next gen­er­a­tion. It il­lus­trated the other way of do­ing pol­i­tics. That’s the ap­proach cit­i­zens have a right to ex­pect from their lead­ers.

JEFF ROBER­SON — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump speaks at a rally in Illi­nois on Satur­day. Ea­ger to fo­cus vot­ers on im­mi­gra­tion in the lead-up to the midterm elec­tions, Trump has es­ca­lated his threats against a mi­grant car­a­van trudg­ing slowly to­ward the U.S. border.

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