11/08/2010 11:02 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Power Shifts

Anyone who believed the Democratic party would retain control of all policy-making branches of government for very long in a period of great economic and political upheaval was not being realistic. That the political pendulum would swing back after the 2008 election was never in doubt. That it happened so quickly was the surprise. Now, anyone in the White House who spends much time grieving is wasting time. Accept political reality and make the most of it.

After the obligatory gestures of cooperative intentions on both sides, the governing artistry must turn to testing intentions. If the president and Democratic leaders govern only by veto, they will lose in 2012. On the other hand, if Republican leaders insist on a roll-back of the Obama agenda of the past two years, they will squander their current advantage and probably not expand their recent gains.

If there is genuine desire on both sides to govern by collaboration, there are arenas in which to operate: liquidating two wars in a responsible way; continuing temporary tax cuts for a reasonable period of time, while laying out the principles for a balanced budget by 2020; creating publicly financed public works, infrastructure projects to create jobs and build the base for economic growth and competitiveness; reforming the military for the conflicts of the future not the past; and the remaining list is obvious.

In a word, start with the agenda on which both parties can agree, resolve that, then move on to more basic areas of disagreement. The fear of many Americans, including myself, is that the two basic political philosophies are incompatible. If so, the country is ungovernable for any period longer than two or four years when one party or the other can control the executive and legislative branches. Then the deeply divided nation moves the pendulum back the other way. This is an adolescent approach to politics, to government, and to citizenship.

During a recent exercise, sponsored by Esquire magazine, to demonstrate how government can and should work by putting senior retired figures of both parties together to produce a balanced budget--which we did in three days without the always helpful guidance of the lobbying army of America--the issue was defined. One of us, former Senator Jack Danforth, said: we have to decide how much government we can afford. Another, myself, countered with this: we must decide what kind of society we want. Those are the two view points now bracketing American politics.

Governing by cooperation is complicated but not impossible. Governing by confrontation is doomed to fail and guarantees stalemate as far into the future as anyone can see. The Democratic party will waste its time if it engages in self-commiseration. It must now restate the principles that distinguish it from the Republican party--the belief in national community (Roosevelt), the commitment to shared security (Truman), belief in republican duty (Kennedy), and a commitment to equality and justice (Johnson). A generation of Americans has never had these principles explained to them.

Differences in principle do distinguish the two parties. But they must not prevent the possibility of accommodation in the national interest. For it is the national interest that is greater than either party.

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