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.
Yet consider this story, which ran in The Hill yesterday:
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 atavists 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.