There is a persistent theme in liberal circles that President Obama tried to reason with the Republican party, but they are now so extreme and so politicized that it was all for naught. This is essentially the thesis of the recent book by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, which I reviewed here, and Obama himself made basically this point in his campaign speech yesterday:
[I]n the decades after World War II there was a general consensus that the market couldn’t solve all of our problems on its own; that we needed certain investments to give hard-working Americans skills they needed to get a good job and entrepreneurs the platforms they needed to create good jobs; and we needed consumer protections that made American products safe and American markets sound…
It’s this vision that Democrats and Republicans used to share, that Mr. Romney and the current Republican Congress have rejected in favor of a no-holds-barred government-is-the-enemy market-is- everything approach.
This is an important part of the Democratic understanding of the current political landscape. After all, President Obama came to Washington promising to break through the partisan gridlock; not only did he fail, his major domestic achievements saw less support from the opposition than any president in the postwar era.
Somebody has to take the blame for this. Liberal Democrats want to pin it all on Republicans, for obvious reasons. And of course their water carriers in the Washington establishment have given this argument a non-partisan gloss.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said this week that President Obama never made a sincere effort to reach out to him after the 2008 election.
McCain was once seen as a potential ally of Obama. But far from becoming a partner — as the left hoped for and the right feared — McCain has turned into one of Obama’s thorniest adversaries…
“This idea that this president or his people reached out to me is patently false,” he said. “To somehow allege that I didn’t somehow respond to their overtures, that’s patently false. That’s their narrative, and I understand their narrative, but it’s not substantiated by the facts.”
McCain pointed out that Obama invited him to the White House in 2009 to discuss immigration reform.
“I said, ‘I’d love to join you,’ and never heard from him,” McCain said…
This undercuts the Democratic thesis of Republican intransigence, and points to an alternative explanation for the hyper-partisanship in Washington, D.C.
It starts with the recognition that Republican members of Congress, far from being the that liberals make them out to be, are in fact highly rational, concerned above all with reelection, which colors every decision they make.
To be sure, the bonds of partisanship complicate things. All else being equal, the fortunes of Republican members are positively correlated with a Republican president, and negatively correlated with a Democratic president. The opposite holds for Democrats. So, Republican members will need a good reason to vote with a Democratic president, and Democratic members of Congress will need a good reason to vote against him.
This means that it is incumbent upon the president to work hard to attract support from the other side, to overcome the force that partisanship exerts against such deals. Obama did not do this at all. Instead, his White House adopted a thoroughly passive nature when it came to bipartisanship, and legislative craftsmanship in general. So, it should come as no surprise that they wound up with bills that satisfied the powers-that-be in the Democratic caucus, but failed to attract Republican votes.
What did the White House seriously expect? Did they honestly think they could let David Obey write the stimulus, George Miller write the health care bill, Henry Waxman write cap and trade, and Barney Frank write financial reform--and Republican support would magically develop?
Knowing this president and his team of advisers, maybe so. But this was foolhardy.
If it was serious about attracting GOP support, the White House should have done three things differently:
(1) Cultivated a sense of emergency about the recession. FDR did this with the Great Depression, and actually borrowed a page from Woodrow Wilson’s management of World War I. The idea here would have been to declare the recession so bad that the typical partisan battles had to be suspended temporarily. This declaration would have had to stretch beyond mere words, and actually result in Republican leaders playing a key role in the management of the recovery (thus getting to take credit if it was a success). If Obama had offered this, it would have put pressure on GOP members of Congress via their constituents back home.
Instead, by the time the country realized the depth of the economic crisis, the president had already moved on to health care and cap and trade.
(2) Eliminated the “deal breakers.” Time and again, Democrats pointed to Republican ideas that they included in their legislation as evidence that the GOP was simply unwilling to cooperate. The problem, however, is that the very same legislation included all sorts of deal breakers, items that the GOP could never support under any circumstances.
The big problem for Obama here was his insistence on going big – the stimulus was one package, and the health care, cap and trade, and financial reform bills sought to redraw all the lines of entire industries in one fell swoop. There were bound to be deal breakers for just about every Republican in every one of those bills.
This is not some unique historical occurrence, either. Henry Clay tried to pass the Compromise of 1850, and failed at first. He just could not put together a coalition. It was Stephen Douglas who had the idea to break the bill into pieces, to craft different coalitions for different sections of the proposal.
Obama could have done that on the stimulus, as well as health care reform – separated them and won GOP support on the items of each that lacked such deal breakers. Indeed, that was exactly the experience of Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. He failed to attract any GOP support for his comprehensive health care bill, but Kennedy-Kassebaum, which guaranteed health insurance portability, passed overwhelmingly in a GOP-controlled Congress.
(3) Targeted gettable votes. McCain’s experience with the White House is instructive. The Arizona senator is, at his core, a restless reformer who could have been won over on immigration reform, tax reform, spending reform, and so on. What’s more, there was a fairly substantial bloc of Senate Republicans in the previous Congress – mostly from the Midwest and West – who could have similarly worked with the president.
But the problem is that they did not get the attention they required. Again, the benefit of the doubt always swings in the direction of one’s own party. This means that the president would have had to do some serious courting of these members, and early on. They should have had input in how the bills were drafted, given vetoes over deal breaker provisions, political cover, concessions on other pieces of legislation, and so on.
Now of course, doing this would never have resulted in a majority of the GOP caucus supporting the president. Far from it. His worldview and their worldviews (or, better put, the worldview of their constituents) are just so at odds that common ground probably could never have been found. But he could have gotten some GOP support if he had worked hard for it.
I do not think the president did any of this because he did not really want to. His rhetoric in praise of bipartisanship on the stump occurred before he knew he would have a filibuster proof majority in the 111th Congress. That changed the calculations of the president and his congressional allies, leaving the congressional GOP redundant and thus not worthy of courtship.
From my perspective, I have no problem with that. It was a rational thing to do. But don’t turn around and blame the GOP for your own lack of interest in their support. That’s just classless. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid had the votes to go it alone in 2009 and 2010. That’s what they chose to do. They should live with the consequences.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.