By Mark McKinnon

Most of the commentary about the first presidential debate focused on what it will mean for the two candidates on Election Day. But its just as important to consider what the debate means for America and whether those campaign themes will remain in tonight's vice presidential debate and beyond.

And if Barack Obama and Mitt Romney mean what they said, then perhaps a long and depressing era of gridlock and dysfunction in American government can come to an end.

On the stage in Denver, both candidates cited the historic cooperation between President Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill as a model for how leaders should reach across the aisle to solve problems.

It’s a piece of history everyone in Washington would do well to remember – especially as negotiations to avoid the dreaded fiscal cliff heat up in the months ahead.

Reagan and O’Neill were probably as far apart ideologically as many Democrats and Republicans today. But somehow they came together in 1983 to forge a grand compromise to shore up Social Security’s finances and preserve it for the next generation.  The two also worked together to pass comprehensive tax reform in 1986 – the last time we’ve had such an overhaul of the tax code

To understand how this happened, you need to understand how Reagan and O’Neill approached their jobs – and how different it was from the way our current leaders approach theirs.

Both Reagan and O’Neill could play the political game as well as anyone.  Reagan once said of O’Neill that “he can really like you personally and be a friend while politically trying to beat your head in.” But both also understood that there was a time for politics and a time for governing.

Reagan would sometimes call O’Neill, and ask, “Hello, Tip, is it after six o’clock?” “Absolutely, Mr. President,” the Speaker would answer. That meant work hours were over, and the two leaders of their respective parties could put away their partisan swords, bring out their Irish whiskey and wit and talk through America’s problems.

The biggest problem in Washington today is that it’s never after 6 o’clock. It’s politics all the time, with no time left to govern.

If that doesn’t change, it will be tough sledding for a President Obama or Romney in 2013.

Visit both candidates’ campaign websites and you will find detailed and elegant multi-point plans for every policy problem under the sun. Once you have looked at the plans, feel free to forget them.

Few, if any of these proposals, will ever become law because neither man will have a big enough Senate majority in 2013, or any time soon, to ram their agenda through unilaterally. That's what No Labels, a grassroots movement of more than half a million Republicans, Democrats and independents, is trying to fix — to grease the wheels of the legislature and find solutions to America's biggest problems.

Democrats and Republicans simply have to find a way to work together. There is no other way. And Obama and Romney will have a responsibility to set the tone for a new era of cooperation in Washington.

Here’s hoping the candidates’ nod to Reagan and O’Neill is genuine, because the future of our country hangs in the balance.

Read more: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/presidential-campaign/261503-a-time-for-governing


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