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How do we get out of this political mess?

So where do we go from here?

That's the big political question since the country is in a near-civil war over health care reform. The way I see it, there are three main groups: We the restless voters, President Obama and his dominant Democrats, and Republican oppositionists. Let's start with us, because we voters, taxpayers and citizens are the most critical force. We're the ones who can bring our politicians back in line.

And, boy, do they need it. What's happening now reminds me of what goes on some days in my home. My wife and I are trying to teach our kids how to win without rubbing it in and how to lose without throwing a tantrum. (Not that we always master winning and losing.)

The same phenomenon is being played out on the political stage, where neither party seems to know how to win or lose anymore. Unless they relearn those arts, we will have to endure an extension of the permanent campaign, where each party tries to pound the other into oblivion.

Many voters get left behind in such battles, so we need to fight back, starting with creating a space for politicians who don't automatically suspect the other party. We particularly need to encourage legislators who show a willingness to work across party lines.

Independent-minded Democrats and Republicans won't get many strokes from their party leaders. But we can reward them with our votes, money and calls when they break from their party lines. When politicians know that we'll reward them for civility and collegiality, they will show more of it.

Now, here's where the parties need to watch out.

The Democrats control all the marbles in Washington, D.C., and they have momentum. But the worst thing that Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could do is misread their health care victory. If they assume we are a center/left nation, and that we prefer answers that rely mostly on expanding government and increasing spending, they could lead the country in the wrong direction.

Specifically, we're now at a jumping-off spot with the national debt. Things could get worse economically if we don't deal now with trillions in public debt.

Democratic leaders also could set up their party for a fall this November or in 2012. Historically, we have been a center/right nation, where most people are skeptical of too much government and too much spending.

Bill Clinton understood this. He weaved between expanding and limiting government. You could make fun of his constant polling, but it gave him a feel for where America was politically. Will Obama and the Democrats running Congress show the same skill?

As for Republicans, they need to begin by policing their own. The health bill's inadequate cost controls and dubious funding stream were reasons to vote "no." But the angry conservatives who are bombarding Democrats with racial epithets and other venom are not only morally wrong — they're making it impossible for their side's views to be heard.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry spoke out last week against such threats from the right. It will take more people like him who come from the Sarah Palin wing of the GOP to make that point. Moderate conservatives don't carry the same weight, especially with their own party.

Also, during the next big debate, whether it's over immigration, education or climate change, Republicans must lead with their ideas, not their slogans. Legislators like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., prescribed health care solutions, but phony charges of socialism overshadowed their ideas.

Going forward, Republicans like Ryan and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., will count even more. Graham recently has worked with Democrats on climate change and immigration. Efforts like that help his party do more than talk to itself.

And remember — we need to encourage independents in either party when they step out. We're the ones who ultimately can move the country forward.

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