Of course, the key word here is "former." These retired politicians are liberated to focus on values, not votes. They can actually agree with each other, even like each other, without the constant, corrosive pressure of ideologues and interest groups that pry the parties apart, not push them toward consensus.
Even when they held office, however, many of these lawmakers cooperated across party lines. As the Republican leader, Dole worked closely with Democrats to renew the voting-rights act. Democrat Nunn teamed up with Republican Richard Lugar to author landmark legislation that dismantled thousands of nuclear weapons.
We recalled this legacy of bipartisanship at the recent funeral of Charles "Mac" Mathias, a three-term Republican senator from Maryland, who often angered hardliners in his party by promoting civil rights and environmental measures. It was fitting that a Democrat, Vice President Biden, gave the eulogy and praised his old friend's "moral courage." Mac, he recalled, never believed that "right and wrong" came with a "D or an R" label.
We believe in Ds and Rs. A strong two-party system is essential for a vibrant democracy. But in Washington today, healthy disagreement has spiraled into destructive demonizing. The other party is not only wrong; it's evil. The "moral courage" to talk to each other, to trust each other, has virtually disappeared.
President Obama was absolutely right when he said in his State of the Union address, "What frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day." Virtually every decision is filtered through a single prism: political advantage. Politicians in both parties ask themselves the same question: What can I do today to improve my electoral prospects while hurting my opponent? Self-interest trumps the national interest. A reasonable man such as Mac Mathias is treated in many quarters like a naive fool, even a traitor. Compromise and cooperation have become curse words. But the public knows how destructive this trend can be.
In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 93 percent agreed that the health-care debate has contained "too much partisan fighting." Three out of five criticized both parties for not taking the other side more seriously.
Obama has been stressing the virtues of bipartisanship recently, and he is certainly trying to capitalize on the dismay reflected in that poll, but his campaign is more than a mere public-relations stunt. When he spent several hours recently with House Republicans, he clearly meant it when he said that Americans "didn't send us to Washington to fight each other in some sort of political steel-cage match to see who comes out alive."
He's the president -- the buck stops at his desk -- so he does not have the luxury of irresponsibility. He knows that none of the biggest problems facing his administration -- unemployment, deficits, health-care costs, climate change -- can be solved by just one party. And he knows that Ds and Rs share the blame for the holy war rampaging through the capital.
Republicans are obviously following a strategy based on a callous calculation: oppose Obama at every turn, hope he will fail, take no responsibility, and run next fall on the slogan, "It's their fault, vote Republican."
Congressional Democrats have systematically excluded Republicans on issues such as health care while caving in to their own special interests. One example: Democrats refuse to consider a reasonable GOP idea, altering the medical-malpractice system, because trial lawyers pour millions into their campaigns and oppose any hint of reform.
In a breathtaking burst of cynicism, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the Huffington Post, "Voters do hunger for that bipartisanship tone. I just hope (Obama) doesn't believe it himself." We hope that he does.
Bipartisanship has gotten a bad name. It is not some mealy-mouthed method that always splits the difference and never stands on principle. It is a doctrine that says politicians of goodwill respect each other's motives and trust each other's promises; they share responsibility and share credit. The deal breakers are the cowards. They are betting on failure. The dealmakers are the ones with the "moral courage" to reach for the common good.
Steve Roberts' new book,
"From Every End of This Earth" (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts
can be contacted by e-mail at