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Voters want two parties to work together more

The TV networks' exit polls should have asked the following question, which would have conveyed a resounding message to both parties about the 2010 elections:

"If Republicans win control of Congress, do you want them and Democrats to stick to their principles even if it means gridlock, or work together even if it means compromising some principles?"

In fact, three separate pre-election polls that I know of did ask questions like that, and the results practically shouted at the two parties: WORK TOGETHER TO GET THINGS DONE.

The McClatchy-Marist poll showed a 72 percent to 22 percent preference for "work together" over "stand firm." A Bloomberg poll put it at 80 percent to 16 percent. And a CBS-New York Times poll had it at 78 percent to 15 percent.

The CBS poll asked a separate question about what President Barack Obama's stance should be. By 69 percent to 22 percent, voters said he should "compromise some of his positions in order to get things done."

Will the politicians listen? Despite the dire problems facing the country -- protracted high unemployment, the long-term debt bomb, energy dependency, a second-rate education system -- chances are they won't or can't, and will spend the next two years struggling to win the 2012 elections.

Sure, Obama and GOP leaders are talking about working together -- they always do the day after an election -- but the rightward shift of the GOP in Congress and Obama's liberal worldview will make it difficult in practice.

Obama ought to -- publicly or quietly -- invite incoming Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to Camp David for a weekend of talk and getting acquainted, having failed to do so over the past two years.

And the Republicans need to realize their 2010 election victories did not mean that the country, particularly Independent voters, trust them to run it.

The exit polls showed that 43 percent of voters view the Democratic Party favorably, while 52 percent view the party unfavorably. For Republicans, the numbers were 41 percent to 53 percent.

The results should especially be viewed as a slap-down of the far-out right-wingers -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and elements of the Tea Party -- who want no compromise with "the left" and want to "purify" the GOP.

DeMint wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion piece Wednesday practically declaring war on his own party's leadership, anticipating it would try to co-opt his forces. But those forces are smaller than he might have hoped.

Far-out candidates lost Senate races in Colorado, Delaware, Nevada, West Virginia -- and maybe Alaska, costing the GOP its chance to take over the chamber. Tea Party conservatives did win in Kentucky, Florida and Pennsylvania, but other than Kentucky's Rand Paul, they won by a lot smaller margins than "regular" Republicans in Ohio, New Hampshire, Indiana and Missouri, who were able to attract Independents as well as the right.

The McClatchy poll in particular showed that Independents -- 75 percent to 16 percent -- want Republicans to "compromise with the Democrats and President Obama to get things done" rather than "stand on their positions even if it means things don't get done."

Even 46 percent of Republicans favored compromise (vs. 48 against), as did 44 percent of conservatives and 46 percent of Tea Party supporters.

Obama and the Democrats lost the elections -- after winning triumphantly in 2006 and 2008 -- because they moved too far left, building up a government that the public does not trust.

But if Republicans don't propose positive steps to create jobs and control the debt, they'll blow their chance to be the dominant party in the next decade.

It was not encouraging that McConnell declared in one interview that "the single most important thing we want to do is make President Obama a one-term president," though he softened his remark in a Roll Call interview, saying "I don't want the president to fail. I want him to change."

The No. 3 Senate GOP leader, Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), told me that he could envision agreements on Social Security reform, trade, construction of nuclear power plants and infrastructure, as well as education reform, "if the president shows interest in accepting Republican ideas, which he hasn't done for two years."

He said that during the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress, Obama should also "agree with his own former budget director," Peter Orszag, "to extend all the Bush tax cuts, so as not to raise taxes in a recession."

(Orszag proposed a two-year extension, then the elimination of all the cuts to control the national debt. The GOP wants an indefinite extension.)

The fundamental problem the 2010 election creates is that the center of gravity of the congressional Republicans has been shoved rightward, meaning that Obama will have to reach further than before to reach any agreements. To do so, he'll risk offending his own liberal base -- and perhaps his own ideology.

But as they approach the next two years, Republicans and Democrats should be motivated most by one question that was in the exit polls: "Do you expect life for the next generation of Americans to be better than life today?"

Only 32 percent said yes.

Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.