RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
In America's presidential contest, John McCain and Barack Obama are both campaigning against partisanship. That's a bit of a challenge when trying to win an election. Both men make the case that Washington politicians need to stop tearing each other down, and they're the candidate best able to work with the other party. Trouble is, as they argue over who's the most bipartisan, Obama and McCain find themselves attacking each other. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON: Barack Obama has made bridging partisan divisions the touchstone of his campaign.
LIASSON: My goal is to get us out of this polarizing debate where we're always trying to score cheap political points and actually get things done.
LIASSON: Obama presents himself as a post-partisan political leader. In that interview on "Fox News Sunday," he said he just wants to do what works for the American people.
LIASSON: Both at the state legislative level and at the federal legislative level, I have always been able to work together with Republicans to find compromise and to find common ground.
LIASSON: But John McCain doesn't buy Obama's claims. Last month in Louisiana, McCain said for all Obama's fine words, he has never challenged his own party to bring change to Washington.
LIASSON: Both Senator Obama and I promise we will end Washington's stagnant, unproductive partisanship. But one of us has a record of working to do that, and one of us doesn't.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
LIASSON: Americans have seen me put aside partisan and personal interests to move this country forward. They haven't seen Senator Obama do the same.
LIASSON: One of the McCain's closest allies, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, says McCain's willingness to work across the aisle on those hot-button issues is one of his strongest qualifications.
LIASSON: All of these other issues that have been tough and controversial, John has been out front more than anybody else in the Senate. And when it comes time to ask the question who will do the hard things as the next president, the best way to answer that question is to ask who has done the hard things before theye got to be the next president?
LIASSON: Whenever there's a bipartisan scrum of moderate Democrats and Republicans working toward a compromise - the gang of 14 on judicial filibusters or other groups dealing with torture, tobacco regulation or global warming - McCain can usually be found right in the middle. Not so Obama. When asked for examples of when he has broken with the Democratic Party to reach across the aisle, Obama cites legal reform.
LIASSON: When I voted for a tort reform measure that was fiercely opposed by the trial lawyers, I got attacked pretty hard from the left.
LIASSON: And he points to his willingness to consider merit pay for teachers.
LIASSON: Sometimes I've gotten in trouble with the teacher's union on this, that we should be experimenting with charter schools. We should be experimenting with different ways of compensating teachers.
LIASSON: His campaign also refers reporters to Tom Coburn, the conservative Republican senator from Oklahoma who co-sponsored an ethics reform bill with Obama. Coburn backs McCain but had this to say about Obama:
LIASSON: He has admirable quality. He does reach out, and he has a good staff. And we've worked together on a couple of things, and it's been a pleasure to work with him. But...
LIASSON: The but for Coburn is the nature of the bill he and Obama sponsored. Coburn says ethics reform was easy and popular. After all, it passed the Senate 98-2.
LIASSON: It's easy to work across the aisle on consensus items. It's when you demonstrate that you'll stand in between a no-man's land, between the two trenches of the Democratic and Republican base, and you'll take the heat. We haven't seen that from Barack. As much as I like him, he's not ever rejected anything of his party to be able to stand in the middle.
LIASSON: But another Republican senator takes it for granted that Obama has earned his bipartisan spurs. Gordon Smith, running for re-election in Oregon, is airing this ad, where he basks in Obama's post-partisan glow.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)
MONTAGNE: Who says Gordon Smith helped lead the fight for better gas mileage and a cleaner environment? Barack Obama. He joined with Gordon and broke through a 20-year deadlock to pass new laws which increased gas mileage for automobiles. Governor Ted Kologoski praised their bipartisan partnership on this critical issue.
LIASSON: Comparing Obama and McCain on bipartisanship is a little like comparing apples and oranges. Obama's only been in the Senate for three years. He's voted with his party 97 percent of the time. McCain, who's been in the Senate since 1987, voted with his party just 83 percent of the time. If the criteria is who's stuck their neck out on difficult issues and paid the price for doing it, McCain has it all over Obama. But Mike Murphy, a former McCain strategist, said that doesn't mean Obama doesn't aspire to the same thing.
MONTAGNE: I think McCain is the guy who has done the things in a post-partisan way that have cost him tough political pain. I think Barack Obama is the guy who says he wants to do it - and I believe him, by the way - but has never really left the wounds on the floor. And that doesn't mean Barack is incapable of it, or it doesn't even mean that he doesn't want to do it. He just hasn't; McCain has.
LIASSON: So the question is, would it be easier for a President Obama to act on his post-partisan instincts, or a President McCain to re-enact his Senate record of working across the aisle? Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who's written extensively about partisan gridlock in Washington, thinks it might be hard for both men to achieve their goal, but for very different reasons. If Obama is elected, Ornstein says...
MONTAGNE: You're going to have a left in the Democratic Party sky high after an election if Democrats sweep, and believing that they don't need anybody else, that this is a new, new deal. And the question for Obama is going to be much more whether he has the backbone to stand up to his own base, not whether he has the willingness to work the other side of the aisle.
LIASSON: A President McCain could have the opposite problem. Instead of a resurgent Democratic majority, a demoralized Republican minority may not be in the mood for any compromise at all.
MONTAGNE: This time, Republicans are not going to start with any level of trust that John McCain will hold out for their interests. And frankly, you cannot make a tango with two working for a president unless he can keep his own party along with people on the other side.
LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.