Putting the “bye” in bipartisan

It is clear that President Obama did not spend many years in the U.S. Senate. As an Illinois state senator, he was used to crossing the aisle in Springfield. When he came to Washington, he made a habit of crossing the aisle in the U.S. Senate too. He rarely crossed the aisle to compromise his own principles, but to try to find consensus so that the notoriously slow U.S. Senate would actually move on some issues. His goals were laudable although the number of times this approach actually worked was rather small. Few issues were sufficiently nonpartisan that significant groups of senators could be persuaded to put country or simple pragmatism ahead of party.

As president, Obama wanted to do the same thing. His thinking is that our economic crisis was grave and as large a national challenge as September 11th was for President Bush. After September 11th, Americans and Congress largely rallied behind President Bush. Democrats largely decided they would accede to him on foreign policy matters, but even on many domestic policy matters, such as large tax cuts, they acquiesced. Such accommodations though were rarely bipartisan. They amounted to capitulation. Democrats were rarely successful in convincing Republicans or President Bush to accommodate their ideas.

To show Republicans he was serious, Obama nominated three Republicans as members of his cabinet. He retained Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, gave the job of Secretary of Transportation to Ray LaHood (formally a representative from Illinois) and nominated as Secretary of Commerce New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, before he abruptly withdrew last week. He was trying to show Republicans that he was serious about running a bipartisan government. He then invited Republicans to tell him their ideas for this proposed economic stimulus bill. The final bill to be signed Tuesday incorporates many ideas pushed by Republicans including large tax cuts.

What did he get for all this effort? In the House of Representatives, every single Republican voted against the House bill as well as the final bill. On the Senate side, three moderate Republican senators crossed the aisle, the bare minimum needed to keep the bill from being filibustered into defeat. Two were moderate senators from Maine who have to win reelection in a state that like most of New England is trending blue. Pennsylvania Senator Arlan Specter, also from a predominantly blue state, was the only other Republican senator to break party ranks. He did so with some trepidation. This vote may well cost him in 2010 when he runs for reelection. His concern is not so much the general election as with the Republican primary. Americans in general support President Obama’s stimulus bill, but the Republican rank and file are up in arms.

Republican opposition is thus partially rooted in opposition from the party faithful. Most Republican politicians are also ideologically opposed to the bill. Considering the size of the tax cuts in the bill and the fact that for the last eight years Republicans have embraced deficit spending, you would think they would be in a more accommodating mind. However, this calculus assumes that Republicans want the economic recovery plan to succeed. Rush Limbaugh articulated their true feelings rather well when he recently said he hopes that Obama fails.

Of course they do! Obama failed to understand that for Republicans, party triumphs over country. This is because they cannot conceive of the United States as a “good” country unless it reflects their governance because they know what is right and Democrats do not. It is that simple. If Obama’s plan succeeds, and frankly, the odds are against Obama, it will mean larger Democratic majorities, more years of political estrangement and no clear way to get back power. If it does not succeed, or is perceived to have been ineffective, by voting No they can say “We told you so”, which sets them up for possible electoral gains in 2010 or 2012. In short, by voting No, there were few political downsides and plenty of potential upsides. It reinvigorated the party faithful, who were feeling dispirited and morose over their drubbing in the last two elections. It showed that they stood on principle, something they were not so great at during the last eight years. Standing on principle, they hope, positions their party to be seen in a new light. Since they are out of power anyhow, the way back into power is to be well positioned when the other party screws up. With a government as large and as unwieldy as ours it is not hard to screw up.

As I mentioned, Obama’s economic recovery plan is unlikely to yield the hoped for results. Like all legislation out of the Congress, it is ultimately a work of political accommodation. In this case, by accepting so many Republican ideas, the plan became watered down and is likely to be far less effective because it is less focused and coherent. Tax cuts have failed to stimulate the economy in the past but here they are yet again. While they won’t work this time either they do give Republicans something to take back to voters, while giving them cover because so few of them actually voted for the bill. It is unlikely that the nearly $800 billion bill, in spite of its huge size, will be enough to really jumpstart the economy. Most of the money will not be spent in 2009, and as a percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product, the amount of money is rather tiny. It is likely better than doing nothing, as it provides vital funds to extend unemployment benefits, food stamps and health benefits to millions of Americans who desperately need them, but it is more of a Band-Aid than a solution.

The reality is that bipartisanship is dead in Congress and is likely to remain so. Obama may want to bring about bipartisanship, but it is only possible if the parties want to be bipartisan. While the American people in general embrace the idyllic notion of bipartisanship, there is no sign that that our political parties want to govern in a bipartisan way.

Obama is a smart man but I am still surprised he did not see this coming. Bipartisanship has great promise, but the soil is not now right for it to grow. It is unclear if the soil will ever be sufficiently fertilized. Thus far, it has had no upside for him except possibly keeping his approval ratings sky high. As a means of effecting helpful policy changes, it is counterproductive. In the future, it is likely that President Obama will give lip service to bipartisanship and work with Democrats and a handful of moderate Republican senators to get the changes he needs. Clearly, Republicans are only interested in promoting their own political resurgence and are hostile toward any actions that might help Obama succeed in these perilous economic times.

2 responses to “Putting the “bye” in bipartisan”

  1. Reality check: Obama hasn’t been president for a full month just yet. Don’t you think it’s a bit premature to pronounce bipartisanship dead? I think it’s still breathing, I do.

    Seriously I loved what Obama said about old habits being very hard to break. I am not as cynical as I used to be. I agree with him that respect and civil behavior will eventually erode old habits.

    Our new president is a very patient and determined person. I’m ready to get behind that idea – of patience and respect. What do you think?


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