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The ‘ex’ factor

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March 8, 2006

By MARTIN SCHRAM

There may be hope for Washington yet. We may have found a solution for reversing the partisan politics of hate that has crippled governance in the nation’s capital.

Call it the X Factor. Or more accurately, the “Ex” Factor.

The Ex-Factor: While Washington’s top Republicans and Democrats seem incapable of halting their political food-fight to find compromise solutions for our problems, Washington’s most prominent ex-officials have been demonstrating that there is nothing in the DNA of elephants and donkeys that prevents peaceful and even constructive coexistence.

We’ve seen our ex-presidents _ Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter, and most recently, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton _ become genuine best buds after being bitter campaign adversaries and provide positive public works. We’ve seen influential but lesser known exes do so, too _ as when ex-Gov. Tom Kean, R-N.J., and ex-Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., led the 9/11 commission that shined a bright bipartisan light on government failures.

And we saw it again last Sunday, from ex-vice presidential candidates Jack Kemp (Dole-Kemp ’96) and John Edwards (Kerry-Edwards ’04). They had led a task force that reported on U.S.-Russian relations. On Sunday, they performed as a TV comity team.

Appearing on NBC News’ Meet the Press with Tim Russert, Kemp and Edwards suggested solutions for domestic and global problems. In the process, they spoke with the sort of a candor about their party’s mistakes and their own that occurs mainly when politicians become exes and are freed of the yokes that cause party animals hem and haw.

On Iraq: Kemp said that there had been “fundamental misperceptions, misconceptions.” Also: “I’ve long felt we didn’t have enough troops on the border of Iran and Syria to wall off the insurgents coming in from outside.” And when Russert confronted Edwards with his 2002 statements that Iraq posed a danger to the United States, the former North Carolina senator replied: “No, it’s not accurate. I was wrong.”

Edwards explained: “Well, the truth is I was, then, I was still trying to defend my vote. When the (2004 election) was over and I had time to think about this and reflect on it, it became increasingly clear to me that I talk a great deal about the need for moral leadership in America … Well, the foundation for moral leadership is the truth. And for me, saying that my vote was wrong is the truth.”

War on Terror: Kemp said, “My most serious problem is that there is no economic component to the war on terror. In other words, there’s no 21st century Marshall aid plan … some type of hope that life can be better for women, their children, families…” (Kemp is right; a global Marshall-type aid program, funded by all industrial nations, is essential to winning the war on terror. It’s a concept I’ve written about for years, including a chapter in my 2003 book, “Avoiding Armageddon.”)

Katrina: When Russert asked if the Bush administration response to Katrina created an image problem with African-Americans, Kemp did not seek politically nuanced cover: “There’s an image problem, no doubt about it. And government at every level failed the Katrina victims … and it uncovered not only a level of poverty that is unacceptable in the 21st-century America that we live in, but a level of racism. I’m not accusing anybody, Republican or Democrat of racism, but the generic attempt by government to handle this problem has led to, I think, a very big image problem for both political parties. And my party … should be thinking big time about what could be done.”

Kemp and Edwards have performed their comity team act on North Carolina and Southern California campuses, as well as in Washington. They by no means have all the answers. But their performances are in the public interest, which may not be mutually incompatible with their own future political interest.

Which is to say that the Kemp-Edwards comity team may not be forever. Russert noted Edwards’ recent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, asking, “You’re thinking about running for president in ’08?” Edwards gave a non-standard non-nuanced reply: “It is something I’m considering, yes.”

That left the hard-pressing anchor with nothing more to press. “Fair enough,” he said. “It’s nice to have a Democrat and a Republican sit here together.”

We’ll see whether the Kemp-Edwards comity survives or becomes yet another campaign casualty if one of its Exes rejoins the political fray.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)