Eric Alterman has a perceptive post at The Daily Beast with the somewhat unfortunate title, “Obama’s Fake Bipartisanship,” which provides a slightly different angle than Ed Kilgore’s “What Price Bipartisanship?” post below. Alterman also responds to Kuttner’s question, “Will somebody please explain to me why Barack Obama is still on his bipartisan kick…What do these guys think they are getting by continuing to kiss up to the Republicans?”:
I think the answer to Mr. Kuttner’s conundrum can be found in an article, ironically enough, by one Mark Schmitt, who happens to be executive editor of, you guessed it, The American Prospect. Way back in December 2007, when supporters of both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were pummeling Obama on what they deemed was the wishy-washiness of his bipartisan appeal in the face of so nasty an opponent, Schmitt published an influential (among liberals) argument, “The ‘Theory of Change’ Primary.” In it, Schmitt argued that liberals were “too literal in believing that ‘hope’ and bipartisanship are things that Obama naïvely believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk.”
…This man is, like FDR, a genuine liberal, but also a serious politician. He is not interested in moral victories or noble defeats. He wants to win. What he’s figured out, however, is that—particularly after two full decades of Bush/Clinton/Bush wars—the American people feel more comfortable with a politician who appears to reach out to the other side, who gives them a chance to play ball. This works both as an electoral strategy and a governing strategy.
if Alterman is right, and I think he is, what we have is a very crafty President, who understands that verbal gestures of goodwill and appeals for bipartisan cooperation are not necessarily the same thing as giving away the store. The public wants more civility. They are tired of what Jesse Jackson termed the “rat-a-tat-tat” of the politics of polarization. The cool hand Obama displayed in the campaign is emblematic of his approach to conflict. — a version of TR’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” I could be wrong, but I trust President Obama to fight for a public option, using all of the leverage he can muster, but without bellicose posturing.
Sure, Obama could also use a little more of TR’s ‘bully pulpit,’ and show more passion in advocating for the uninsured and for the public option in general. But he’s right not to get suckered into personalized attacks that make everyone involved look silly. A little dignity looks awfully good nowadays, particularly compared to the GOP’s recent side-show.
Alterman goes on to caution that Obama’s approach might not work. After all, today’s Republican party is sadly devoid of leaders like Sens. Jacob Javitz, Lowell Weicker and others who would often confound their GOP colleagues by doing the right thing. Bipartisan outreach may produce few votes across the aisle on health care. But a President who expresses a willingness to negotiate, reaches out and invites his adversaries to join him can not fairly be faulted for selling out.
Obama’s bipartisanship has been more than show. He bargained away the power of the federal government to negotiate lower rates for prescription drugs. He gave up using an expansion of Medicare as a vehicle to reform. Now the health care plan would save little or no money so it has little support among the majority of the public who value cost savings above other goals. Obama hasn’t even been firm enough to say he wouldn’t sign a bill that contains no strong public option.
Health care reform is failing now because its losing the support of the left. After the compromises, there’s nothing left for the left to support.
I agree with Alterman’s assessment (and Kilgore’s comment in the post below) that Obama is playing a very long-term game to get the Republicans to paint themselves into a “non-mainstream” corner from which it will take them decades to emerge. What is unclear to me is whether Obama appreciated the full extent to which Republicans (of virtually all stripes) are willing simply to blow things up if America can’t be “theirs.” The tactic of giving the Republicans enough rope to hang themselves needs to be balanced with the imperative to achieve concrete improvements in people’s lives through the enactment of progressive policy proposals, like health care reform. If the Republicans can make politics utterly dsyfunctional, then their hope is that enough of the public will come back to them in an angry and cynical backlash that they can win elections. Obama needs to be concerned about the Republicans’ capacity to destroy the possibility of achieving anything, in which case they “win” by discrediting progressive policy initiatives as a way forward. What encourages me is that Obama is a politician and wants to win. I am sure he is aware of these issues, but his timing and balance will need to be excellent, if not perfect.