Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Post-Election Cooperation: The Opportunity of a Fresh Start

Michael J. Gerson


November 9, 2012

By Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

A presidential campaign conducted with considerable bitterness at least ended with some grace. In his concession speech, Mitt Romney called on Republicans and Democrats to put people before politics. In his victory speech, President Obama argued that our nation is not as divided as our politics suggests and called on Americans to come together. 

That sprit will be needed in the days ahead. The president had a convincing win, based on the strong turnout of his coalition. But Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives. Americans, as they have often done before, selected a divided government. And that means nothing of consequence can happen without cooperation between the parties. 

Such cooperation will be almost immediately tested.  Before the end of the year, our government faces a fiscal cliff—a series of tax increases and spending cuts that take place automatically unless the President and Congress comes to agreement on an alternative approach. The economic consequences of falling off the cliff could be dramatic.  Economists estimate this might slow economic growth by perhaps 2 or 3 percent—a serious blow in a still-weak economy. 

So the bipartisan spirit of election night needs to be more than words when the Congress returns. If the parties can eventually find agreement on a responsible package of revenue increases, spending reductions and entitlement reforms, it would help create an atmosphere of economic stability and predictability. Credit markets would be reassured, businesses would feel more comfortable making investments, and America could begin a period of economic growth and optimism. If divided government continues to produce gridlock, economic uncertainty will only increase. 

Even after a bitter election that widened the partisan divide, an election result is the chance for a new beginning.  But that depends on certain political decisions which are also ethical choices.  A new beginning requires winners who reach out with genuine good will and refuse to press advantages that humiliate their opponents. A new beginning requires losers who respect the outcome of an election and seek compromise where their principles allow. And both Democrats and Republicans need to be mindful that their positions could easily be reversed by voters in the next election. 

The basic rules of morality still apply in politics. Civility, respect and a generous spirit—in the long run—work better than hubris and high-handed tactics, which create an endless cycle of bitterness and revenge. It is the role and power of leadership to break that cycle. And this can only be done when leaders are motivated by a vision of the common good instead of the search for partisan advantage.   

We haven’t seen much of that type of leadership in recent years, which has brought us to a fiscal cliff.  But an election can be a fresh start—if leaders will embrace it.    

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).  

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”