Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Saturday, 23 January 2010

America's left-right divide: A bridge too far?

Scott Brown victory speech

A gulf divides US Republicans and Democrats, but American voters find the idea of bipartisan politics irresistible. But for politicians, asks BBC North America editor Mark Mardell, is the promise to reach out to the other side just a political game?

The banner behind the first Republican senator in Massachusetts for 30 years did not mention the name of his party.

Instead, it read The People's Seat.

The voters had taken exception to Democrats calling it "Ted Kennedy's seat" as if it was some baronial pile to be handed down without interference from the peasantry.

The victor, Scott Brown - a former nude male model now forever nicknamed Senator Beefcake - was obviously deeply moved and thrilled.

So much so, he rather burbled his acceptance speech - at one point making his daughters cringe. "They're both available," he told potential suitors.

They shot him an "Aw shucks dad!" look. But his aim was not to embarrass his daughters.

He pounded away at one theme. The people wanted to send a message to Washington. Political leaders were aloof, wanting to shove things down the throats of the people. It could not be business as usual.

Bales of hay

Scott Brown and his pickup truck
Scott Brown campaigned from the back of his truck

In Washington, another politician who swept to power on a wave of popular discontent, is looking glummer and grimmer by the day.

Barack Obama has only been US president for a year but his opponents are determined to portray him as the embodiment of Washington, of too much government, a government that does not know how to do anything but spend.

It is another example of this populist narrative. You go to Washington to change things, and Washington changes you.

Scott Brown had a way to say he was not like that - he drives a pickup truck.

There is something about a pickup truck. As a non-American, one that has little interest in cars, even I can feel an itch to drive one.

It is rugged, a working tool of a working man. Into its broad open back, you can sling a deer you have just shot, bales of hay or an old boiler.

Still, it is much more difficult for the man who drives around in the armoured car they call The Beast, and who sits in the White House, to convince people that he is not part of Washington.

In his final speech as president, George Washington warned against the very existence of political parties

Maybe after the campaign and all the hope expressed therein, Obama thought he did not have to stress that he was on the people's side.

But the thought that he is now, to some, the guy who is in charge, not listening and getting it wrong, seems to have just hit the White House like a thunderclap.

Obama is not really a pickup truck sort of guy. But if he had one, he would know exactly where to drive one - to New York.

Obama's campaign is against a place that has an even stronger entry in the imaginary atlas of infamy than Washington - Wall Street.

Sacred creed

His plan to split up the big banks allows him to talk about lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill and how he is going to fight them on behalf of the people. It allows him to utter the populist sacred creed: "It can't be business as usual."

When Scott Brown arrived in wicked Washington, long-serving senators seemed slightly irritated at all the attention he was getting.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama is appealing for a united front on banking reforms

But he showed himself adept at playing one of the city's oldest games - bipartisanship.

Invited to attack President Obama by journalists, Brown noted the man's great sense of humour and how they had joked on the phone about playing basketball together.

Adding that the president had heard he is an independent sort and he looked forward to working with him.

He talked not of killing the president's health care reform plan - but of going back to the drawing board. Republicans and Democrats working together.

In the months I have been here I have been struck that bipartisanship is to many Americans, more than a hollow piety.

It is an ideology. A deep desire instilled by the founding fathers that politicians should overcome their differences and work together.

In his final speech as president, George Washington warned against the very existence of political parties. They distracted public servants, he said, they created panics and false alarms, they opened the door to corruption and even cause riots.

Americans organised themselves into two rival political camps soon after.

Deep divide

And so at first it looks like a paradox.

America is deeply divided by its politics - you can tell in a couple of minutes, whether someone you are talking to is a Republican or a Democrat, a gulf divides them. Yet people of strong views, left and right, long for bipartisan agreement.

Perhaps it is not a paradox, but pretence - a yearning that the other side will, some day, see the light.

For the politicians, it is like a game of chicken, and the president is playing it again.

It was one of Obama's election promises that he would govern in the spirit of bipartisanship.

One of the accusations against him is that he has not done so.

So, in the name of the people, in the name of common sense, he is now politely asking Republicans to join him, help him, in a plan for new laws that have shaken and infuriated the big banks.

But if they do not join him, if they do not cross from Wall Street to Main Street, he might get knocked down - by a pickup truck.

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