I don’t know about you, but this election is killing me. I’m not exactly a rose-colored glasses guy, but I genuinely thought that the matchup of Senators McCain and Obama had the chance of bringing back a semblance of civility to our presidential elections and politics in America. Instead, this election has evolved into the most hateful and divisive of my adult lifetime, ultimately threatening the very governance of our nation.

This political circus is horrible for America at this time of economic crisis. It will adversely impact our middle-class families and be particularly devastating for the children and families in poorer, working-class communities. As if these families were not being hit hard enough by record home foreclosures, massive layoffs, falling wages, and surging food and gas prices, I fear that what’s in store is going to be worse.

And, I’m not even talking about the meltdown of our banking system. My greatest concern is that extreme partisanship deprives our next president of the ability to address a core fiscal challenge that is as daunting and politically sensitive as the rescue of America’s banking system, if not more so. Both the Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office (GAO) project that mandatory spending—the wonky term for big-ticket items like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the national debt—are on course to exhaust all federal revenue within a generation. In the surprisingly stark words of a GAO forecast released this summer, “absent significant changes on the spending or revenue sides of the budget or both,” the government will be able to do “nothing more than pay interest on its debt and mail checks to retirees and some of their health providers.” 

Think about what this looming crisis will mean for children and families. If we don’t alter our fiscal course now, we will take away the very essence of the American promise—that all children, regardless of background, have the opportunity to rise as far as their passions and talents will take them.

The federal government will not have a dime for helping improve public schools, for early childhood education, or college scholarships. Not a dime for Food Stamps, for nutritional support for women and infant children, or for protecting children from abuse. Not a dime for helping working families secure stable housing and reliable health coverage.

After a 30-year career in business, with 14 more years of working full-time as a philanthropist and advocate for social change, I am convinced that nothing else we do for children and families will matter if we don’t address this budget crisis—and that extreme partisanship is the greatest impediment to solutions. Without thoughtful discussion and debate, America’s charitable community and the families it serves will be left gasping for air. If ever there were a time for mavericks of both parties to come forward and set aside narrow political interests for the national interest, it’s now.

I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. This ugly political season has convinced my wife and me to apply a new test before we offer any more support to political candidates with our personal funds. From this moment on, a key litmus test for our supporting any candidate will be this: Does the candidate have a demonstrated track record of working with decision-makers of the other party and steering clear of the vitriolic politics tearing away the soul of our nation?

If you make campaign contributions—whether it’s $5 or far more—I encourage you to reward candidates and public servants when they put our nation ahead of party. And come down hard when they do not.

Even more important, do the same when you enter the voting booth. Vote for those who level with us about our budget realities and who will reach across the aisle to find solutions.

True leaders lead by example. Just imagine what would happen if, on January 20, our new president were to announce in his inaugural address that he and his competitor had joined forces to help find the common ground necessary to confront our budget crisis and implored their respective constituencies to do the same.

There’s no exact precedent for taking such a daring step, but bitter rivals almost always find ways of quickly putting aside grievances after bruising primary battles. And remember that two recent presidents who once despised each other, Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, successfully joined forces not long after their terms in office to assist victims of the Asian tsunami and Gulf Coast hurricanes. It can be done.

If Senators McCain and Obama were to team up even in a modest way on day one, imagine the tone that would set. Whether the call came in the form of soaring rhetoric or unadorned straight talk, imagine how much easier it would be for us all to summon our better angels and sacrifice for the common good.

imageMario Morino, a former software entrepreneur, is the chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners, based in Washington, DC.