WASHINGTON--How would you govern?
That's a key question voters, no matter their ideology or party affiliation, should be asking as they consider candidates in the upcoming presidential and congressional primaries and later on for the general election in November.
White House and congressional hopefuls have or will offer their programs, explain deeply held principles and debate. A central element almost always is missing: the game plan for getting it done in a time of increasing polarization and extreme partisanship.
Add to that what Brookings Institution scholars Sarah Binder and Thomas Mann call the "devaluation of compromise" and you have the underpinnings of government dysfunction, an example this week being the wrangling over the extension of the Social Security payroll tax break.
President Barack Obama vaulted to national attention when he was an Illinois senator for blurring the partisan differences in his famous 2004 Democratic convention speech in Boston, where he said there were no red states or blue states. He ran for president in 2008 promising a new kind of post-partisan politics, a goal that has proved elusive or, so far, impossible.
The enormity of "changing Washington" has turned out to be far more difficult for Obama than he ever anticipated. He talked about the challenge while in Richmond, Va. on Sept. 29, 2010.
"I will tell you that changing the culture in Washington is very hard, and I've seen it these last two years, because I think that folks in Washington tend to think about how to stay in power more than they think about how to solve problems," Obama said.
"Well, things don't always get through Congress the way you want them," Obama said at that same Richmond event.
What an understatement.
More than a year later, Obama is grappling with a worse situation, exacerbated by the GOP winning the House in 2010 with Tea Party freshmen, who have pushed Republicans leaders to the right. That has made it harder to work, Mann and Binder note, with a Democratic Senate and White House.
Candidates this election season should be asked what do they value more, the argument or advancing a piece of legislation. Use real pieces of pending legislation to ask what they would do if they tried to amend a bill to their liking -- but failed.
Newt Gingrich's proposal to abolish selected federal courts if he did not like the judges may be your cup of tea. But it is so radical, it's hard to see how lawmakers would ever agree. How would he sell it to a divided Congress? And for all his business experience, Mitt Romney never had to deal with 535 independently elected board of directors.
Freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) made a name for himself in part by being a Tea Party hardliner. Democrats voting in primaries in the 8th and 10th Congressional Districts are arguing amongst themselves over what flavor of Democrat is better, a progressive or centrist.
Of course, candidates should discuss their issues and positions -- but they should also be asked about their views on effective governance and if they believe compromise and consensus are dirty words.