Af­ter Tuc­son, a thaw be­tween Obama and McCain?

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz

Could the long-icy re­la­tion­ship be­tween Pres­i­dent Obama and his 2008 pres­i­den­tial op­po­nent, Sen. John McCain, be thaw­ing?

McCain (R-Ariz.) took a sig­nif­i­cant step to­ward rec­on­cil­ing with the pres­i­dent in a grace­ful op-ed in Sun­day’s Washington Post. If that ar­ti­cle marks a gen­uine fresh be­gin­ning, it would be one pos­i­tive thing to come out of the hor­rific shoot­ing spree in Tuc­son eight days ago.

McCain and Obama will never be com­rades in arms. They have too much his­tory, too much mu­tual ill will and too many philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ences for that. In the two years since McCain went down in de­feat against Obama, the ten­sion be­tween them has been ev­i­dent in al­most ev­ery pub­lic set­ting in which they’ve ap­peared.

But in prais­ing the pres­i­dent’s speech at Wed­nes­day’s me­mo­rial ser­vice in Tuc­son, McCain has reached out to Obama with an open hand. Not since his gra­cious con­ces­sion speech on the night of the elec­tion has McCain spo­ken so gen­er­ously of his ri­val. Obama should not let the op­por­tu­nity pass to reach out to McCain in re­turn.

McCain said much more than just that the pres­i­dent gave, as he put it, “a ter­rific speech.” He of­fered a char­ac­ter ref­er­ence for a politician whom many con­ser­va­tives in McCain’s party see as un-Amer­i­can. “I dis­agree with many of the pres­i­dent’s poli­cies,” he wrote, “ but I be­lieve he is a pa­triot sin­cerely in­tent on us­ing his time in of­fice to ad­vance our coun­try’s cause. I re­ject ac­cu­sa­tions that his poli­cies and be­liefs make him un­wor­thy to lead Amer­ica or op­posed to its found­ing ideals.”

This is not the first time he has said some­thing like that about the pres­i­dent. In the clos­ing weeks of the 2008 cam­paign, the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee came to Obama’s de­fense, re­buk­ing some of those who had spo­ken out most stri­dently at his ral­lies, in­clud­ing peo­ple who claimed Obama was un-Amer­i­can.

That moment proved fleet­ing. McCain had con­cluded early on that Obama’s talk of bi­par­ti­san­ship and unity was longer on words than on deeds. He pri­vately ques­tioned whether Obama had the courage to chal­lenge mem­bers of his own party, as he would need to do to bring about real bi­par­ti­san­ship — and as McCain had done so of­ten with his fel­low Repub­li­cans. McCain of­ten let his lack of re­spect for Obama show through on the cam­paign trail.

He also had other griev­ances about Obama and his al­lies, most no­tably over some­thing said by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights move­ment and some­one McCain long had re­garded with re­spect.

As the McCain ral­lies grew more rau­cous, Lewis sug­gested that the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee was con­don­ing the most vit­ri­olic attacks against Obama and that do­ing so could cre­ate an at­mos­phere con­ducive to vi­o­lence — much as Ge­orge Wal­lace’s be­hav­ior did dur­ing the civil rights era. McCain was as deeply hurt by that as any­thing said of him in pub­lic life, his ad­vis­ers said at the time.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, Obama reg­is­tered McCain’s dis­re­spect and re­turned it in kind. For two years, their mu­tual re­sent­ment has been at the sur­face of their re­la­tion­ship, to the detri­ment of the coun­try. Both have seemed more in­ter­ested in scor­ing points against the other than in putting the 2008 cam­paign be­hind them.

When the pres­i­dent con­vened his health-care sum­mit last win­ter, McCain jabbed at Obama for hav­ing failed to live up to his prom­ise to con­duct health-care ne­go­ti­a­tions on CSPAN.

Obama in­ter­jected: “We’re not cam­paign­ing any­more. The elec­tion is over.”

“I’m re­minded of that ev­ery day,” McCain re­sponded.

It’s pos­si­ble that Tuc­son will let the two lead­ers turn the page. The McCain who comes through in the Post op-ed is the McCain many have known for a long time. Only the puck­ish sense of hu­mor is ab­sent, ap­pro­pri­ately so given the ar­ti­cle’s sub­ject mat­ter.

The Ari­zona sen­a­tor has moved to the right, along with his party, in the past four years. That makes true part­ner­ship with the pres­i­dent more dif­fi­cult, given Obama’s poli­cies and lean­ings and the pos­ture of the Demo­cratic base. But both men have of­ten pre­ferred to look for ways to op­er­ate closer to the po­lit­i­cal cen­ter. Whether it is on im­mi­gra­tion, en­ergy or Afghanistan, the pos­si­bil­i­ties for greater co­op­er­a­tion be­tween them seems to ex­ist if the will is there to find some com­mon ground.

No less ob­vi­ous in McCain’s ar­ti­cle is his strong de­fense of Sarah Palin, his vice pres­i­den­tial run­ning mate. Palin drew in­stant crit­i­cism af­ter the shoot­ings for a map she had pub­lished that in­cluded cross hairs on the dis­tricts of 20 mem­bers of Congress whom she had sin­gled out for de­feat. She was ac­cused of con­tribut­ing to a cli­mate that led to the Tuc­son mas­sacre, though there was no ev­i­dence to sup­port such a con­nec­tion.

When she fi­nally spoke in her de­fense Wed­nes­day, she drew more crit­i­cism for in­vok­ing the phrase “ blood li­bel,” heav­ily freighted words, to char­ac­ter­ize the tres­pass of those who blamed the shoot­ings on con­ser­va­tive rhetoric — or any­thing she had done.

McCain noted that peo­ple should not ex­pect a po­lit­i­cal leader to be in­dif­fer­ent to un­fair as­saults on her char­ac­ter. “Imag­ine how it must feel,” he wrote, “ to have watched one week ago the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble mas­sacre of in­no­cents com­mit­ted by some­one who had lost some es­sen­tial part of his hu­man­ity, to have shared in the heartache for its vic­tims and in the ad­mi­ra­tion for those who acted hero­ically to save the lives of oth­ers — and to have heard in the cov­er­age of that tragedy voices ac­cus­ing you of com­plic­ity in it.”

Obama said the same thing, us­ing dif­fer­ent words, in Tuc­son. “Rather than point­ing fin­gers or as­sign­ing blame, let’s use this oc­ca­sion to ex­pand our moral imag­i­na­tions, to lis­ten to each other more care­fully, to sharpen our in­stincts for em­pa­thy and re­mind our­selves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound to­gether,” he said.

Obama and McCain have spo­ken as lead­ers in the af­ter­math of Tuc­son in an at­tempt to el­e­vate the pub­lic di­a­logue. Per­haps they can be­gin to speak to each other in the way they have asked ev­ery­one to do.

balzd@wash­post.com

2009 PHOTO BY CHARLES DHARA­PAK/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sen. JohnMcCain has reached out to Pres­i­dent Obama with an open hand. Obama should not let the op­por­tu­nity pass to do so, too.

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