More top-two primaries like Washington's could be the answer to crippling political partisanship

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SEATTLE -- The election is over, apparently everywhere but in Washington state, and the nation is moving on.

Let's hope our leaders rise above the bitterness that marked most federal campaigns and meet the very serious challenge immediately before them: a Dec. 31 deadline to to avoid a potential "fiscal cliff." Personal income- and payroll-tax cuts are expected to expire by the end of the year and deep spending cuts will be triggered, under a 2011 deal.

Tuesday night, President Obama seemed to return to his old soul-raising rhetoric with a victory speech that made overtures to House Republican leadership. Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also suggested they were ready to solve problems.

But by Friday, partisan muscle memory seemed to prevail. Obama said he would veto any deficit-reduction approach that did not require people with annual incomes of more than $250,000 to pay more in taxes. Meanwhile, Boehner said more comprehensive reform would have to wait until next year.

Here we go again. It was just such political brinkmanship, fanned by intransigent partisanship, that prompted U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, not to run again. The approach of Snowe's successor, former Maine Gov. Angus King, is actually heartening. Though King is a confirmed independent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats assumed he would caucus with them and did not endorse any Democrats against him.

But Thursday, King said, not so fast. He hasn't decided which party he will caucus with.

"I just want to do something that's true to what I committed to my constituents up here and that is to be a good senator on their behalf."

That might be what candidates say to voters, but it is not always where their first allegiance lies once in office. Rather, it's to party leadership. Want that committee assignment? First, promise to toe the party line and give your vote when demanded.

Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma now with the Aspen Institute, shares Snowe's concern for the federal legislative branch. He believes the parties' stranglehold of control, including over partisan primaries and redistricting, is what's at fault, not that citizens are so divided.

"Polarization is not our problem. Partisanship is," Edwards said during an Association of Opinion Journalists conference recently in Orlando, Fla.

Though he was the fourth-ranking leader in the House Republican caucus, Edwards has become an ├╝ber-populist with a road map for how Americans can take back their country.

In his book, "The Parties Versus The People: How to turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans," he makes several recommendations. Among them: "Eliminate the ability of political parties to determine who can run in a general election."

That's right, folks, he holds up Washington state voters and their 2007 embrace of the top-two primary by initiative as an example for the nation.

California followed in 2010. With this election, Louisiana returned to a top-two system for congressional candidates for the first time since 2004. (Arizonans on Tuesday rejected a top-two primary.)

In Washington this year, all the federal contests were between a Republican and a Democrat. But in state legislative races where two candidates of the same party advance to the general election, often the more moderate choice has won. That was certainly the case in the 36th Legislative District where voters comfortably elected Port of Seattle Commissioner Gael Tarleton over fellow Democrat Noel Frame, former state director for Progressive Majority.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed the Washington Democratic and Libertarian parties' request to reconsider the constitutionality of the state's top-two primary, the first time in a dozen years the primary hasn't been the focus of litigation, legislative chicanery or citizens initiative. Thank the Washington Grange and Secretary of State Sam Reed for the stalwart support for the people, rather than the parties, retaining control over who gets to the general election ballot.

"The revolution is starting," Edwards said. "It's started in Washington and California."

Kate Riley, Seattle Times editorial page editor. can be reached at kriley@seattletimes.com.

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