Political Culture: Bipartisanship — What Is It Good For?

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

As of last night, absolutely nothin’. (Legislatively speaking, at least.) But you gotta give Barack Obama points for trying.

Presidents don’t often do what Obama did on Tuesday. A week to the day after his inauguration, he returned to Capitol Hill and spent three hours glad-handing House and Senate Republicans in an effort to win at least a modicum of their support for his massive stimulus package. True to the promises he had repeated throughout the campaign – that he would change the terms of political debate and encourage legislators to rediscover the art of compromise – Obama surrendered his home-court advantage, reminded Republicans of the concessions he had already made (tax cuts added, spending increases deleted), and asked them to help show the citizenry that its government has a firm, somewhat unified grip on the situation.

And the Republicans, true to their nature, responded, “Thanks, but no thanks.” (Apply Palinesque intonation at your peril.) Last night, not a single GOP House member defied his sewn-together-from-corpses leader, John Boehner, to vote for the package.

House Minority Leader John BoehnerOne of the hoariest clichés out there is the notion that politicians “campaign in poetry, but govern in prose.” Both Obama and John McCain campaigned last fall with uplifting calls for bipartisanship – McCain because he needed to overcome the Republican brand, Obama because he wanted to run up the score and break through the “50-percent-plus-one” nightmare of the Bush years. But even now that Obama has achieved that breakthrough, he’s still governing (at least for the moment) in poetry, and Monday’s visit to the Hill was nothing if not poetic.

Whether it was poetic like the opening moments of Camelot, or poetic like a sweet picture of a baby seal taken immediately before it’s clubbed, remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: Congressional Republicans, despite their current status as the Detroit Lions of American politics, have decided to go down to defeat in prose.

Their choice is hardly surprising — bipartisanship and compromise have been dirty words for Republicans since at least 1991, when congressional backbenchers pitched a fit over George H.W. Bush’s negotiated tax hike. Since then, the GOP’s fall and rise and fall have been captained by True Believers from Gingrich to Delay to W., men who would sell their constituents down the river (and often did) rather than betray ideological dogma.

Even now that the party’s fortunes are in free fall, Boehner and the few other remaining TB’s have decided that the way for Republicans to stay relevant is to become – in the new catchphrase – the “Party of No.” No support for bills written by the Democrats, no shared responsibility for the fate of the economy. And, they hope, no taint during the next election cycle if the Democrats’ ideas don’t work.

They must recognize the dangers inherent in this game. Obama received the largest percentage of the vote of any candidate in 20 years, and his approval ratings are the highest of any new president since Eisenhower. By huge margins in recent polling, Americans are demanding strong and swift action – and trust the Democrats, not the Republicans, to design and implement it. They want a stimulus package that will work, to be sure, but for now they really, really want a package. In this kind of environment, one might expect a bit more deference from the defeated party, and one can easily imagine the consequences of obstructionism.

My aim here is not to debate the merits of the package that passed the House last night. It contains a lot more Democratic ideas than Republican ones, but such are the spoils of victory. So far it looks like a colander full of spaghetti, ready to be flung against the wall. Folks of every political persuasion have identified obvious shortcomings, and have suggested ways of tinkering around its edges. It likely will undergo significant changes along its path to Obama’s desk sometime next month. But here’s the key thing: I don’t know whether it will work, and neither do you.

What we do know is that Obama would like very much for the public to rally around it, and he’d like to help that along by drumming up some GOP support. But does he actually need the Republicans? Not really. The GOP of 2009 is a paper tiger, a rural party without a true base of power (apart from the stacked judiciary), while Democrats have majorities that (so far) seem large enough to ram through any legislation they damn well please. Obama, if he chose to, could probably get his entire first-year agenda passed without a single Republican vote.

A Pelosi sandwichBut bipartisanship sure does look good right now, and Obama knows it. He and his advisors seem to have a firm grasp of the public mood, and they know that as long as he reaches a hand out to Republicans – even if they slap it away, as they did last night — he’ll win the PR battles and perhaps marginalize his opponents even more. That may be his real goal in all this; if not, it may be all he can realistically hope to accomplish.

Obama has already offered up some concessions, and likely will offer a few more before the whole thing’s done. (Having spent a bit of time on the National Mall last week, I can tell you the place could definitely use $200 million or so in renovations, and cutting that amount from an $825 billion package hardly represents a victory for fiscal discipline that Republicans should be proud of. Think of the struggling sod farmers!)

Senate Republicans likely will accommodate Obama a bit more than their House brethren did – it’s difficult to imagine the Maine dames defying a guy who won their state by 16 points, or poor Arlen Specter wanting to appear too conservative with Chris Matthews breathing down his neck. And the package may even attract some GOP votes in the House when it comes back from the Conference Committee, if it still enjoys broad public support.

Of course, the GOP’s plan is to tear down that support – or, failing that, to position themselves to say “I told you so” if the economy is still in the crapper in the fall of 2010. My guess is, that’s a losing hand. After all, what was Obama’s response to last night’s GOP recalcitrance? To invite Boehner, the weaselly House minority whip Eric Cantor, and the Senate’s Republican leadership (who are they again?) over to the White House for cocktails. Even if the lubrication didn’t grease the skids of bipartisanship, it sure sounds like it was a good time – and it served once more to remind the nation, if not Obama’s GOP guests themselves, that while they work in a building on a hill, it’s the President who holds the moral high ground.

Or is it just possible that Obama really believes in this stuff?