Was it happenstance (possible), or a strategy (possible)?
On January 23 we ran this post that indicated that Republicans in Congress were going to pursue a two-pronged strategy in dealing with President Barack obama: (1) Since Obama enjoys high popularity and is a new President they would praise him for his outreach efforts. (2) They would also drag their heels on Democratic lawmakers and basically not cooperate with him.
Obama visited Capital Hill today and what occurred — at this writing at least — seems to fit the predicted strategy right down the line. Is Obama falling into a trap — or is that just the way things were?
In a bid to build a bipartisan vote for his $825 billion economic stimulus plan, President Obama took a rare presidential run up Capitol Hill today to talk directly to skeptical Republicans.
They listened, asked questions, made points, praised the visit, but did not commit to backing the plan, which faces its first vote in the House on Wednesday.
“We’re not going to get 100 percent agreement, and we might not even get 50 percent agreement, but I do think people appreciate me walking them through my thought process,” the president said, as he left a meeting with GOP senators just off the Senate floor.
“I hope I communicated a sincere desire to get good ideas from everybody,” he added. “My attitude is this the first major piece of legislation we’ve worked on, and that, over time, some of these habits of consultation and mutual respect will take over, but old habits die hard.”
In the run-up to today’s meeting, House GOP leaders complained that their Democratic colleagues had drafted a purely partisan bill that left them out of the process. While praising the president for reaching out to minority views, Republican leaders are urging opposition to the plan when it comes to the floor on Wednesday.
“What congressional Democrats have put on the table is a wasteful and unfocused package that will create plenty of government programs and projects – but not nearly enough new, good-paying jobs,” said House Republican leader John Boehner in a statement after Mr. Obama’s visit on Tuesday.
Reports aren’t suggesting that all is lost: sentiment is still more favorable among Senate Republicans, Obama officials are feverishly trying to woo Republicans (particularly the few moderate Republican survivors left on Capital Hill), and the White House is reportedly betting that in the end enough GOPers will come on board so it will be a bipartisan plan. Obama and his Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has said the administration is open to compromise.
But now there are two other factors in the mix:
1. Details about how Obama interacts with GOPers suggests someone who is polite but makes it clear that if he has to he will play hardball, without threatening to do so. First there was the (taken out of context in many ways) statement to Republicans: “I won.” Then there were his comments today on tax rebates for poorer Americans.
President Barack Obama rolled into the Capitol with a clear message for Republicans Tuesday afternoon: He’s happy to talk, but he’s not compromising on his tax rebates for lower income households.
Obama was ready for the House Republicans to pounce, telling them: “Feel free to whack me over the head because I probably will not compromise on that part [refundable tax credits],” according to two sources in the room.
Read this detailed ABC News account of the meeting and it’s clear that just as Democrats were deluding themselves in thinking that the Republicans would be chastened and in political shell shock for long, Republicans who dismiss Obama as an inexperienced pushover are living in Delusion Heaven as well. Note this throw away joke that is highly significant:
Obama said that there will be time to beat him up and a time for politics.
“I understand that and I will watch you on FOX News and feel bad about myself,” he joked.
2. The Rush Limbaugh factor. Right now the GOP has no “real” leader. Senator John McCain is still Senator John McCain, a failed Presidential candidate (failed standard bearers don’t usually stay leaders of their parties). Gov. Sarah Palin is an aspiring leader and is clearly making the moves to run in 2012…but she’s no GOP leader (yet). Republican Congressional leaders don’t lead more than their in own elective bodies.
So who is emerging as the most seen national face of the GOP? It’s seemingly conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh — loved and adored by conservative Republicans and those who want polarizing, attack-dog politics. His spats with Obama have made him become the face of the GOP — to the extent that it appears as if the Republican party now the Rushuplican party.
The problems: (1)Limbaugh stands for noncooperation with Democrats, since he makes if clear all are evil. (2) Independent voters and some moderate Republicans or even Bush 41 Republicans are often not amused by him and made it clear in election 2010 that they wanted the era of bloody, nonstop partisan razorfights to be over.
If Limbaugh is essentially calling the shots (which some think he is since politicos fear his listenership which is part of the GOP base), then the prospects for bipartisanship are as likely as Washingon Mutual buying Chase.
On the other hand, there are signs that at least some GOPers don’t like the fact that a well-fed broadcaster who flies around the United States in a private jet and makes $39 million a year is complicating their political lives. The Politico reports:
Rush Limbaugh may command a large following, but his caustic comments Monday about the GOP’s congressional leadership have at least one Republican House member defending his colleagues and offering an unusually candid critique of the talk radio powerhouse and his fellow commentators.
Responding to President Obama’s recommendation to Republican congressional leaders last week that they not follow Limbaugh’s lead, the conservative talkmeister said on his show that Obama is “obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell. He’s more frightened of me, than he is of, say, John Boehner, which doesn’t say much about our party.”
Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., did not take kindly to this assessment in an interview with Politico Tuesday.
“I think that our leadership, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, are taking the right approach,” Gingrey said. “I mean, it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don’t have to try to do what’s best for your people and your party. You know you’re just on these talk shows and you’re living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing. But when it comes to true leadership, not that these people couldn’t be or wouldn’t be good leaders, they’re not in that position of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell.”
Limbaugh, of course had a response to that (he always does). But the bottom line is this: he’s getting lots of ink, Internet attention and broadcast time. But he’s unlikely to be the GOP’s ticket to regaining the support of the public — unless the party wants to write off many independent voters, Democrats who don’t like the Democratic party’s far left, and moderate Republicans who don’t like the way Limbaugh has demonized Republicans who aren’t conservative enough for him. A Rushuplican party would not do well as a thoughtful, bigger umbrella Republican party.
Is all bleak? Not necessarily due to several other indicators:
*Several reports note that some Republicans think they can go along with a final plan once it gets to the Senate where they will have more input. The Senate has also proven to be a far more moderate branch of elected Republicanism than the House of Representatives.
*Some Republicans praised Obama for coming out to talk to them, something that was rare under George Bush.
*Republicans indicated that the contrast between Obama’s dialogue and the Democrats’ in Congress was notable. ABC again.
The only reason I am pursuing this plan is because if we don’t get the economy moving again soon, the situation future generations will inherit will be worse, the president said.
“Thank you for your outreach and the spirit in which you came here,” said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the House GOP Conference Chair. “You mentioned that this bill had been negotiated in the House. Let me make it clear that there has been no negotiating in the House.”
Democrats have shut them out of the process, he said, to applause.
Said Pence, “we promise that we will pray for you every day and the door of this conference will be open to you.”
The most applause the president got came when he said he would extend Q&A for five minutes and make the Senators wait.
On the other hand, is this part of the strategy? Slice Obama off from the Democratic Congress and blame votes against an Obama plan on those extreme, spendthrift, non-dialoging members of the opposition party who outnumber them? And will the Obama outreach prove as enduring as Jimmy Carter’s (laughable) sweater: something that’ll be put on early in his term but seldom be seen again?
Time will tell — but was an unusual sight to see a President walking the halls of Congress without heading towards his own impeachment hearing…
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.