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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Meaning of “Zero”

All around the chattering classes late this week, the big topic has been the unanimous House Republican vote against the economic stimulus package, and what that might mean for Obama’s much-discussed commitment to “bipartisanship,” and for the GOP.
To begin with, it’s important to clear away some misunderstandings on this subject.
First, there was never much of a prospect of significant House Republican support for any kind of stimulus package that Obama or Democrats might go along with. There are very, very few “moderates” left in the House GOP Caucus after their 2006 and 2008 bloodbaths. Grassroots conservative pressure to move in exactly the opposite direction from anything like a spending-heavy stimulus bill, and from anything like real cooperation with Obama and House Democrats, has been obvious and intense from the day after the November elections. And so long as most of the Blue Dogs were kept in line, there was never any need for Republican votes. That’s not the case in the Senate, where at least a couple of GOP votes are essential, and where the rules and folkways of the chamber, in sharp contrast to the House, encourage at least some bipartisan discussion.
Second, the widespread assumption that the design of the stimulus bill involved expansive and naive hopes from the White House for considerable GOP support has never been, in my opinion, at all accurate. Here’s Markos Moulitsas just today:

Republicans played this properly, unlike the constantly-capitulating Dems the past decade. It’s Obama’s chasing of the magic “bipartisan” pony that deserves scorn, because no number of concessions was going to get him a single Republican vote in the House.

I’ve followed the debate pretty carefully, and have never seen any real evidence that Obama thought he’d be able to get House Republican support; other than a couple of blind quotes from Obama aides in places like the Wall Street Journal, there’s never been any evidence of that at all. The idea that including tax cuts in the package indicated a lust for Republican support, or a concession to their views, ignores the rather important fact that the bulk of tax cuts were for implementation of Obama’s central campaign pledge of a tax cut benefitting low-to-moderate income workers. The small batch of business tax cuts in the package didn’t follow GOP ideology at all, and were likely aimed at securing (successfully) business-community support, not that of House Republicans. When House GOPers asked for real concessions, Obama turned them down.
Once you get past the flawed assumption that Obama made concessions in hopes of House GOP support, and failed, his “outreach” to Republicans and his continuation of bipartisan rhetoric must be viewed in an entirely different light. Who was the real audience for these efforts? House Republicans? Or the public? Rationally or not, and like it or not, large swaths of the American citizenry don’t like pavlovian partisanship, and appreciate politicans who make some effort to overcome it. Obama has obliged them, and offered Republicans the choice of cooperating or going into pavlovian opposition. House Republicans have chosen the latter route, and if they continue to do so, “bipartisanship” will become more and more associated with the President and his party, even if they never make a substantive concession to an opposition that refuses to negotiate on any terms other than their own.
There are plenty of metaphors that might apply to Obama’s strategy–which I’ve dubbed grassroots bipartisanship to distinguish it from the familiar split-the-differences beltway brand of bipartisanship–but the simplest is probably the military principle of putting yourself in a position where the enemy must decide to head off one of two likely lines of attack, exposing himself to outflanking once he has committed his forces. It’s the same principle that underlies the option attack in football, or the fast break in basketball. The GOP has committed itself to a course of action in dealing with the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress that gambles everything on frontal opposition, exposing its flanks from several directions.
So it’s entirely possible to support Obama’s “grassroots bipartisanship” while being pleased that the House GOP slapped his outstretched hand away. This development may well hasten the day when the Republican Party finally faces a choice of reconsidering its ideology, or consigning itself to a long-term minority status.

2 comments on “The Meaning of “Zero”

  1. ducdebrabant on

    Let’s not forget what Obama did after negotiations had begun — he was instrumental in getting stripped from the House bill the two provisions about which the Republicans complained the most: family planning funds for the states and money for the renovation of the Washington Mall. Having made real, obvious concessions, and gotten absolutely no Republican votes for his pains, he has shown Americans that a concession by the Democrats will achieve nothing reciprocal from the other side. So let’s not make too many of those future concessions, please, without a clear quid pro quo. The Mall really does need those funds, and Pelosi is right that family planning funds (even if they aren’t stimulative, and I don’t know) save the states money in the long run. I say we put those right back in the Senate or in conference.

  2. James Vega on

    Actually, Obama’s strategy can be described as an “endplay” – a tactic used in chess and warfare – whereby the strategist maneuvers his opponents into a position where they must make some kind of response but all the available options put them at a disadvantage.
    If the Republicans respond to Obama’s “bipartisanship” with any kind of concessions they appear to have capitulated to him and to have “drunk his cool-aid.” If they rigidly reject any compromise, they appear uncooperative and ideological.
    When the opinion polls start to show “bipartisanship” declining in popularity among the majority of voters and Obama’s approval rating going down while the congressional Republicans’ approval ratings start going up, then it will be time for Obama to re-evaluate his strategy. For the moment, in contrast, he has them, in the well-known metaphor, “on the horns of a dilemma”


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