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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What Price “Bipartisanship?”

For months now, hardly an hour has gone by without someone in the progressive chattering classes complaining about President’s Obama’s “bipartisanship” talk. One of the strongest recent complaints was from the estimable Robert Kuttner at HuffPo, where he plausibly asked what the administration has gotten for its willingness to reach out to the GOP, and concluded, also plausibly, that it hasn’t produced much in the way of tangible benefits.
But at some point, it’s equally important to flip the question and ask: Has the bipartisanship talk done any real damage?
On the stimulus legislation, concessions were made to a few Senate Republicans (along with several Democratic allies) to get their votes, which were necessary for passage of the bill.
On climate change in the House, concessions were likewise essential to passage of the bill.
On health care reform, has the administration made any concessions to Republicans so far? Not that I’m aware of. Henry Waxman (presumably with White House approval) did make some concessions to Blue Dog Democrats to get enough of them to support a bill in order to lift it out of the Energy and Commerce Committee to the House floor. In the Senate, the administration has allowed Max Baucus and Kent Conrad to negotiate with a handful of GOPers, but to the extent there have been substantive concessions (e.g., hints that coops might be an acceptable substitute for a public option), they’ve been necessary to secure Democrats, while keeping open the possibility of defections from two or three Republicans, which may well prove necessary to enact a bill, depending on how the reconciliation gambit works out. But at the same time, publicly and privately, the White House has made it clear it’s willing to pursue a Democrats-only strategy if that proves possible, and if that’s what it takes.
Now you can make the argument that the bipartisanship talk has “discouraged the base,” but frankly, at this point, the enthusiasm level of “the base” is germane only to the extent that it translates into votes in Congress. Throughout the 2008 campaign, there were also fears expressed that Obama’s bipartisan or post-partisan talk would “discourage the base,” and that didn’t actually happen, did it?
Beyond that, as I’ve argued many times before, Obama appears to be pursuing a long-term strategy of constantly forcing Republicans to either cooperate with him or obstruct him openly, on the theory that the former option might produce a few key votes, and the latter option will further paint the GOP into an extremist corner.
A little further down the road, when attention focuses largely on wavering Democrats in the House and in the Senate, the administration and the congressional leadership will have to make a judgment call as to whether a directly partisan “disciplinary” approach, or the “cover” of securing a few Republicans with a few concessions that those same Democrats happen to support, will work best. Until then, progressives would be best advised to maintain some perspective in complaints about “bipartisanship.” It’s not costing progressives much of anything we don’t already have to pay to keep Democrats in line, and we’ll need just about all of them if the fight does become strictly partisan.
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One comment on “What Price “Bipartisanship?”

  1. pjcamp on

    The fault is not with his bipartisan efforts. The fault is with his abject failure to articulate a clear, consistent, vigorous position. On anything. The recent kerfuffle over a public option is illustrative. It isn’t the public option, yea or nay, that stands out. What stands out is that we can’t figure out what Obama wants, either his starting position or his bottom line, and he doesn’t seem to be wanting to build a case for anything in particular. He’s only just now gearing up, after months of vacation, and only in response to a concerted attack. Maybe it is all a grand strategy that will work out in the end, but the course of the stimulus bill does not augur well for this one – he started with a compromise position and then compromised further from there. He didn’t make much of a case for his opening gambit, and didn’t seem particularly bothered when it got sliced and diced for no good economic reason.
    It’s a waste of a good mind.

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