Channeling George Washington

The last American president who governed in a truly nonpartisan way was also the first American president, George Washington. Washington said this about political parties in his farewell address: “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

Washington’s admonition lasted about a day. Soon after the general departed the stage, the capital city named for him separated into two parties, the Federalists and the anti-Federalists, led by the rogue capitalist Alexander Hamilton on one side and the gentleman farmer Thomas Jefferson on the other. And from that point on, the two-party system, despite Washington’s admonition, became the process by which we choose our leaders.

While the two-party system continues to dominate the political affairs of the United States, there is still a yearning in the American psyche to have a president who can unite the factions and bring the country together.

That spirit lives on, now more than ever. After the bruising partisanship of the Bush administration, in which both political parties gave as much as they got, the country is seeking a leader who will move past partisanship and assume the mantle of George Washington.

We have had such periods in our history before. The bitter partisanship of the Truman years brought us eight years of the relative calm of the Eisenhower administration. The strife and crisis brought on by the Nixon-Ford-Carter era ushered in Ronald Reagan, who governed as a conservative but appealed to a huge voting bloc of Reagan Democrats.

John McCain’s natural instinct is to move past partisanship. Like his hero, the trustbuster Teddy Roosevelt, McCain takes on business interests, traditional allies of the Republican Party. He is an environmentalist. He has pushed to get money out of politics. Conservatives don’t really trust him, but many Democrats and independents like him.

For an example of post-partisan leadership, McCain need look no further than two governors who support his candidacy and have governed from the center. Both Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) and Charlie Crist (R-Fla.) enjoy high approval ratings as a result. Yes, they make their allies nervous, but they will both be easily reelected as long as they continue to find solutions to big problems.

Governing as a post-partisan is not easy. Campaigning as a post-partisan is even harder. The two-party system is not set up for the kind of post-partisan world that George Washington envisioned in his farewell address. But if John McCain can make the case that he will govern as a solutions-based post-partisan, as a patriot and as a hero, he just might do better than most people think this November.