There was a little incident late last week that’s been bugging me, because it nicely illustrates the problem folks have with the very different contexts in which the word “bipartisanship” is used. You may well have seen the story in Politico in which President Obama, after listening to congressional Republicans complain about the size and structure of the economic stimulus package, seemed to have tartly put them in their place by reminding them that “I won” the election.
Before you could say “Aha,” observers from both left and right drew attention to this alleged slip-of-the-mask that some hoped or feared showed Obama’s real attitude towards bipartisanship.
Said Chris Bowers at OpenLeft:
Good. This is the sort of language that disarms Republicans, and there won’t ever be a better time to adopt it. I would perfer if he talked like this in the open, but President Obama still deserves credit for this. Here’s to hoping that this signals the end of watering down the stimulus in order to appease Republicans for aesthetic purposes, and the start to a new era where we just don’t give a damn what Republican leaders think.
You can read a similar take at the influential conservative site Red State:
Bipartisanship under unified Democratic rule means this: Congress writes the bill, and Democrats ask Barack Obama to rope in some Republicans without having to make any changes. And why should they back a bill that they had no hand in writing? Because he won.
And this from the people who accused Bush of refusing to take Democratic input and compromise!
Well, maybe that’s where the partisan debate is ultimately heading. But for the sake of accuracy, it’s worth noting that the context of Obama’s “I won” remark wasn’t a general call for GOP input, but a specific Republican demand that Obama replace the refundable tax credits of his “Make Work Pay” plan with across-the-board and unrefundable income tax rate cuts, as an account in the New York Times of the meeting in question makes clearer:
At issue is Mr. Obama’s proposal that his tax breaks for low- and middle-income workers, including his centerpiece “Making Work Pay” tax credit, be refundable — that is, that the benefits also go to workers who earn too little to pay income taxes but who pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. Republicans generally oppose giving such refunds to people who pay no income taxes.
“We just have a difference here, and I’m president,” Mr. Obama said to Mr. [Eric] Cantor, according to Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who was at the meeting.
Mr. Emanuel said that Mr. Obama was being lighthearted and that lawmakers of both parties had laughed.
Mr. Cantor, in an interview later, had a similar recollection. He said the president had told him, “You’re correct, there’s a philosophical difference, but I won, so we’re going to prevail on that.”
In other words, congressional Republicans were trying to revive a debate that was fully litigated during the presidential campaign. The “Make Work Pay” credit was the centerpiece of Obama’s tax plan, and the argument that refundable income tax credits for working Americans who pay high and regressive payroll taxes is actually “welfare” became a shrill and frequent talking point for the McCain-Palin campaign, not to mention every right-wing gabber on the planet. It should also be remembered that the same tired argument against refundable tax credits was once repudiated by both George W. Bush and John McCain when it was advanced by Tom DeLay.
So of course the President wasn’t going to consider for a moment going along with this Republican “suggestion,” which reflected not only a “philosophical difference” between progressives and conservatives, but a subject that has truly been resolved after extended public debate and an election.
The idea that this represented some sort of crossing of the Rubicon by Obama, who has finally recognized (or revealed, depending on your point of view) the futility of bipartisanship in every sense of the word, just isn’t supported by what actually happened.
If, on the other hand, congressional Republicans persist in making their primary “input” a series of recommendations that Obama and Democrats admit the folly of their thinking and turn their backs on everything they were elected to do, then they should be allowed to howl in the political wildnerness at a safe distance, and “bipartisanship” should be limited to such rank-and-file Republicans out across the country as might be convinced to leave them behind.