No hand across the aisle.

Photographer: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Scorched-Earth Campaign May Cost the Next President

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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There is a red and blue political divide in the U.S. that this election is only exacerbating, with consequences for governing.

Presidential campaigns are about choices, differences, especially between the parties. The 2016 divide between Republicans and Democrats is more intense and polarizing than usual.

Two of the leading contenders, Senator Ted Cruz, on the Republican side, and Senator Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, openly declare that this is a "base" election focused more on bringing out hard-core committed supporters than on trying to persuade more independent-minded folks. Their impressive showings in the Iowa Caucuses -- Cruz won, and Sanders almost did -- reinforce that. And among Donald Trump's attributes, political consensus-building isn't at the top of the list.

Even after the New Hampshire primary this week winnows the field, Hillary Clinton will still be the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, and Marco Rubio will be one of the three or four Republican finalists.

Both claim that they could govern effectively. Clinton's central case against her liberal opponent, Sanders, is that she could get things done. Rubio, the freshman Florida senator, emphasizes that he wants to be president of the "United" States.

Any Republican is going to claim that President Barack Obama is a failed leader overseeing a weak economy with no wage growth and pursuing a feckless foreign policy that has caused America to lose respect around the world. They will say that Clinton was a failed secretary of state with lots of political baggage. 

Rubio goes further. He says Obama really doesn't appreciate America and views it an "an arrogant global power that needs to be cut down to size," while blatantly disregarding the Constitution. Clinton, he says, is "disqualified" because she allowed highly sensitive and classified material to be transferred to her private e-mail server "knowing it would expose it to foreign intelligence agencies" and that she "lied" about the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed.

If, 49 weeks from now, President Rubio is sworn in, Democrats will remember that he came close to calling Obama anti-American and Clinton a crook and liar -- a case the congressional committee investigating the Benghazi attacks failed to make.

Clinton has been almost as harsh in denouncing Republicans. Although she has stopped short of suggesting criminal behavior, her attacks have been sharper than those waged by Obama eight years ago or Bill Clinton before that.

Moreover, for all the talk about animosity specifically directed at Obama, many Republicans harbor as much resentment toward Hillary Clinton, who they believe plays by different rules. If she gets to the White House and Republicans retain control of Congress, the honeymoon may last just hours before the investigations commence.

Clinton does talk some about searching for governing consensus, as do several Republicans. Jeb Bush, after going through the Obama policies he would undo his first day as president says he also might call Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer.

Drawing on extensive experience in Congress and as Ohio governor, John Kasich contends that a bipartisan approach is essential: "Serious issues in this country cannot be solved by one party." He says Social Security is one example of a problem that could only be fixed through cooperation: "Republicans would be so freaked out by the Democratic claims of throwing Grandma out on the street that they'd never get it done."  

But few expect Kasich or Bush to win the nomination. The harder messages of Trump and Cruz resonate much more.

Obama said last month that one of the "few regrets of my presidency" was that "the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better."

If the tone and substance of this campaign don't change, the next president may express the same regret.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net