NORMAN, OKLA.--Call them "the grumpy old men in the middle."
In an earnest but possibly ill-timed effort to push bipartisanship in the presidential election, a gaggle of 17 mostly moderate Republicans and Democrats--as well as one conspicuous, recently declared independent who is the mayor of New York City--called on the leading presidential candidates to "stop politics as usual," as the group's leader, former Sen. David Boren, told a packed auditorium gathered at the University of Oklahoma, where he is president.
Rattling off a list of troubles ailing the country, Boren said the group--mostly silver-haired former senators, all but one white and all but one male--had come together out of concern that the nation's "partisan impasse" is putting everything from national security to the country's crumbling roads and bridges at risk.
"Why is it so difficult for our country to act to meet these challenges? We're failing to address them primarily because rampant partisanship has paralyzed the ability of our government to act," former Sen. Sam Nunn complained. He called on the presidential candidates to help break the deadlock by promising, among other things, to appoint "truly bipartisan" cabinets: "As we say in Georgia, we're eating our seed corn."
Despite the crowd's loud applause and the anticipation of hearing from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the group's message seemed blunted in the wake of the recent ascendancy of Barack Obama and John McCain, both of whom have been preaching the very kind of political transcendence the Boren group so empathically pleaded for here. Indeed, political observers say the meeting was first planned at a time when Sen. Hillary Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani were considered the front-runners, "which would have given them plenty of reason to get Mayor Bloomberg to run," says Elmer Milion, an independent who ran for lieutenant governor here in 2006 and attended the event. "But I don't think he'll get in the race if he has to run against Obama. I don't think any politician wants to be accused of blocking the door to the White House to the first African-American president."
For his part, Bloomberg remained as coy as ever, telling the audience that "I'm not a candidate."
Yet like his cohorts, Bloomberg, too, heaped criticism on candidates who have shown "no accountability to the standards of what they promised when they ran for office."
"They're not willing to stand up," he continued. "But everyone here will tell you, our experience is that the public may not agree with you when you take a position, but they respect you for it."
By Alex Markels