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Posted by on Feb 10, 2009 in Politics | 10 comments

The Real Work of Bipartisanship

“Bipartisan” has become the word of the day in political life. Actually, I don’t think its hold has ever left us. There is something among Americans that we want to see people put aside partisan differences and work together.

Presidential candidates love to talk about how they will come to Washington and create a new environment where people will work together and things will get done.

When George W. Bush became President in 2001, he talked about being a “uniter, not a divider.” He said he wanted to bring a new spirit to our political life, citing his time as governor of Texas, where he worked with Democrats to pass meaningful legislation. He came to Washington with a jovial mood and even took to calling people by nicknames. One example of this was his calling the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone “Pablo.”

But we all know what happened. The President as well the GOP, which then held both houses in Congress, pretty much ran over the Democrats. Bipartisanship got lost pretty fast.

Now, we have a new President who has talked about creating a new kind of politics. So far, though, all is not well among the parties in Washington. President Obama has placed three Republicans in his cabinet, he has met with GOP leaders and even invited some to the White House. What does he get in return? Well, House Republicans voted en masse against the Stimulus Bill. In the Senate, only three Republicans voted the stimulus package, and not without cutting some money from the bill.

Democrats and Obama admirers are quite upset about this. Here President Obama has done so much for Republicans and this is how they treat him.

But the problem here, in my view, is the President Obama is making the same mistake that President Bush made: trying for the look and symbolism of bipartisanship, but not really getting at the hard work of bipartisanship.

To really be bipartisan means having to find a way to work out a bill in light of the fact that you are dealing with two political parties with very different ideas of how governments should be run. It means that both sides have to learn to give up some cherished ideas and projects to reach a deal. There is a reason they say that making law is like making sausage; it’s not pretty.

In a recent opinion piece, Steve Huntley of the Chicago Sun-Times notes that Obama was basically trying to do bipartisanship on the cheap. He notes:

Obama has been good on the symbols of reaching across party lines, saying he wanted to hear Republican ideas for stimulus, inviting GOP lawmakers to the White House and traveling to Capitol Hill to meet with the entire Republican House caucus.

But Obama didn’t walk the talk. He outsourced the writing of the stimulus bill to the hyper-partisan House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with predictable results. When members of the GOP House caucus complained they were being frozen out of the writing of the bill, he did nothing to persuade Pelosi to include Republican thinking.

The outcome was a bill long on the big-government spending liberals like and short on the kind of investor- and consumer-friendly tax cuts that conservatives want. Rather than serving as a focused strategy of stimulating the economy, the bill unleashed eight years of pent-up Democratic ambitions to expand government. It didn’t get a single GOP vote, and 11 fiscally minded Democrats refused to sign on to it.

Now, the GOP are not victims here. And, of course, elections do have consequences. But the thing here is that Obama could have used his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel to work with congressional Republicans to hammer out a deal. No, it would not be the GOP wish list of tax cuts all the time, but it might have included more conservative ideas that would have brought more Republicans on board.

But instead, Obama let Nancy Pelosi do the heavy lifting. Pelosi has made it known that she isn’t interested in working with the GOP and the President should have known that.

Of course, bipartisanship is a two-way street. If the winners have to learn not to be so haughty, then the losers, in this case the Republicans, have to understand that they are not in the driver’s seat. That doesn’t mean accepting everything that the majority party puts in front of them, but it does mean that they won’t get everything they want because of their status.

President Obama, like President Bush before him, has decided to use symbolism as bipartisanship. But such a tactic fools no one and just sours the relationship even more.

Maybe the best, if imperfect example, of bipartisanship has been what the three moderate GOP Senators have done in regards to the Stimulus Bill. Realizing that they aren’t the party in charge anymore, they worked with moderate Democrats to work out something that was at least a bit more palatable. In my opinion, the bill is still too bloated, but it is at least not as bad as it was before.

But the thing is, that took hard work. No nice meetings or getting together to watch football. It was probably doing a lot of talking and talking and talking. And it got people cheesed off. Conservative activists see Senators Snowe, Collins and Specter as traitors, liberal activists think they have done “violence” to the bill. But that’s politics: in a nation of 300 millions with differing visions of governing, you can’t please everyone.

I wonder what would have happened if Obama worked with the GOP leaders in the House and Senate to work out a deal. There would have been a lot of yelling, but I think that in the end, there might have been a bill that more Republicans could swallow.

I can only hope that this is not a sign of things to come with the President. I hope that in the future, Obama will be willing to get his hands dirty to work out a deal with the opposition and save the football for another time.

Crossposted at NeoMugwump

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • salter1

    i must agree w/D Sanders that Pres Obama missed an important opportunity to have chief of staff Emmanuel lead political fashioning rether than abdicating to the hate-republicans tactics of rep pelosi.
    so, as a PA republican sympathizer, i wrote the following note to “dear hon sen Specter: i support your decision to approve the stimulus bill, 100%. thnx for doing what’s best for the usa. partisan politics is still in a sorry state, even as the current congress grapples with the most serious issue of our times.
    my wife & i live off our iras, still down over 40% in the last 13 months.
    thnx for trying to be part of the economic solution. the other circa 40 republican senators are still part of the problem!”

  • Don Quijote

    I wonder what would have happened if Obama worked with the GOP leaders in the House and Senate to workout a deal. There would have been a lot of yelling, but I think that in the end, there might have been a bill that more Republicans could swallow.

    And that would have pissed off a lot of Democrats and left them wondering why exactly did we vote for this putz.

    Hate to break it to you, but Republicans lost, and they lost mainly due to your own incompetence. Elections have consequences, get over it!

  • kritt11

    Republicans are more interested in obstructing the bill than compromising on it. Obama included the prized tax cuts that the GOP thrives on— but still not a single Republican in the House voted for it. They have no conception that the economy is in trouble because of their policies of deregulation, huge tax cuts for the top echelon, and deficit spending.

  • Jim_Satterfield

    Every Republican House member is a conservative activist. Until you admit that, Dennis, your posts concerning working with Republicans lack credibility. The only thing that would make the House Republicans vote for any bill is for them to get their own way on everything. You still don’t understand where the Republican party is coming from, do you?

  • timr

    kitt11 and Jim S have it right. The rethuglician congress is not interested in “bipartasanship” at all. They have made it clear-thru a memo leaked to the press-that their sole aim is the total defeat of Obamas presidency. They don’t seem to care what the people who elected them want, they don’t care what the republician govs want. Their current leader-Rush Limbaugh-wants nothing more than the total defeat of the dems-screw the country, as long as the rethug party scores points and gets the MSM to parrot their words, they are happy. OH yes, and because the massive tax cuts of the bush administration helped to get us into this mess, of course the only thing you hear from those fiscally ignorant rethug congress critters is TAX CUTS, TAX CUTS, TAX CUTS. Nothing else will work. They are not even listening to the economists who are also reps who go along with Obama. BTW, according to at least 1 congressman, because bush allowed Lehman bros to fail, we almost had a total collapse of the entire world economy. Again, the Bushies and the rethug congress caused this mess so what they want means nothing. Your party lost. Get over it.

  • CStanley

    They have made it clear-thru a memo leaked to the press-that their sole aim is the total defeat of Obamas presidency.
    Where’s the smoking memo?

    They don’t seem to care what the people who elected them want,
    Most of the polls show a majority of the public rejecting this bill, and a clear majority prefers tax cuts to spending. So which party is ignoring the will of those who elected them?

    they don’t care what the republician govs want
    Which would actually be a sign of principle, since the national interest isn’t necessarily the same as those state interests.

    But hey, it’s true, Obama won with a pretty big mandate. So, let’s agree to support him if he actually pushes a bill that matches up even remotely with what he campaigned on (as some have noted, we assumed when he said he’d go through the budget line by line, he didn’t mean that he’d go through to ADD to each line of spending.)

  • kritt11

    CS- The only time the Repubs can seem to find their “principles” is when they are out of power, and can blame whatever happens on the Democrats. They have no credibility on fiscal responsibility anymore. I’m wondering how much of “standing on principle” is the result of conservative activist groups that threaten to work to unseat them– should they move towards a compromise bill.

    By nature the conservative movement clings to its ideology and rejects compromise- they have proven that time and time again– especially by signing Norquist’s “No New Taxes” pledge.

  • CStanley

    Kim, I don’t believe that any politicians of either party actually act on principle most of the time. But when the principled postion matches up with their own interests, they do. So, if that’s what’s happening with the GOP right now, then why do I care? It’s not like the Dems are principled in wanting ‘stimulus’ spending which just happens to match up with every special interest group and voting constituency that funds their campaigns and elects them.

    It’s up to us to decide which principles are right and back the people that are voting that way- regardless of whether or not those people are sincere.

  • Jim_Satterfield

    It’s not like the Dems are principled in wanting ‘stimulus’ spending which just happens to match up with every special interest group and voting constituency that funds their campaigns and elects them.

    Prove it. Prove that that is all there is to their desire for an economic stimulus.

  • CStanley

    It’s an opinion, Jim. Opinions can’t be proven, but you can provide the evidence on which you’ve formed the opinion. I already did that by pointing out that I find it highly suspicious that the particular blend of spending that the Democrats thought would make up the ideal stimulus happened to match up with the same wish list they’ve been hanging on to for years.

    And I never said that this was ‘all there is to their desire for an economic stimulus.’ In fact the other day I pointed out that I think there are two groups who support the bill- some are partisans who really do see this (I believe) as an opportunity for a major power grab for the Democratic party, while others (probably most) are actually completely sold on the idea of Keynesian economics but they don’t actually understand it in anything but a broad outline. Instead of understanding that the principle of borrowing against future productivity might work in some situations and not others, and that spending has to fit certain criteria, they actually believe that all spending is stimulative (I sooo wish that someone had asked Obama this question at his press conference: “Mr. President, you made a pointed joke today about the fact that a stimulus bill is by definition a spending bill, but even though that’s true is it necessarily true that all spending bills are stimulative?”)

    Look, what you have to understand about my opinions is that I’m pretty much an equal opportunity cynic. I think the GOP politicians are just as guilty of rationalizing their policy preferences- and even now, as I said to Kim, I’m not deluding myself to think that they’ve all suddenly regained principles on fiscal restraint. I know they’re making political calculations in opposing the bill, but if I agree with that opposition according to my own principles, then I really don’t care about their sincerity.

    I imagine it’s much the same for a liberal voter, who might know very well that there are things that have been put into this bill because of politics, not economic principle- but on balance these voters might agree with the general principles and they’ll support the Democratic legislators even if they don’t believe they’re as sincere or principled as they’d like them to be.

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