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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