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EDITORIAL: Voters are desperate for better federal government

Voters vented boiling frustration with Washington Tuesday in an anti-incumbent and pointedly anti-Democratic rage that all elected officials left standing should heed. Americans are still uneasy about the economy, unsure of the nation's direction and more than unhappy with how the president and Congress are doing their jobs.

That dissatisfaction and anger produced a political map that's a lot more red today than it was Monday. But the vote was more a rejection of the status quo than a mandate in favor of any clear alternative.

Democrats took what President Barack Obama candidly called "a shellacking," losing their majority in the House and seeing it narrowed dramatically in the Senate. But not so long ago it was Republicans who, in George W. Bush's phrase, took a thumping - in 2008, when they lost the White House, and in 2006, when they lost majorities in the House and Senate. For three elections in a row now, the desire for change carried the day.

The public is clearly desperate for something better from Washington. A healthy legislative process, civility and government that works to solve problems and improve the lot of beleaguered Americans aren't too much to ask. But neither party can deliver those things on its own. Democrats and Republicans are lashed together as "the government" and, right now, the public doesn't believe it's getting the right answers.

Elected officials need to take the partisanship down a notch. It's gotten out of hand and reduced governing to little more than another battlefield in the never-ending campaign.

Unfortunately, there are signs they don't get it. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Barack Obama to be a one-term president." And Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after winning re-election Tuesday that, "the bell that just rang is not the end of the fight, it's the beginning of the next round."

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the day after an election is the first day of the next campaign. But rather than a partisan call to arms, congressional leaders should call a timeout. This time, more than most, the nation needs a respite that will allow for bipartisan cooperation.

Republicans, for instance, shouldn't waste a lot of time trying to repeal health care reform. They'll try, because they promised they would. But Obama still owns the veto pen. Tweaking the law to make it better is the pragmatic thing to do. Just saying no was a successful Republican strategy when they were in the minority in both houses of Congress. Now that Republicans are the majority in the House, their party has a responsibility to help govern.

Obama and congressional Democrats also have to adapt to that new reality. They should actively seek out areas where cooperation is possible - for instance on tax cuts, education, energy and deficit reduction - and give enough ground to make progress.

Elected officials must finally put what's good for the country above their partisan concerns. Voters have made it clear they're running out of patience. hN