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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Burying Bipartisanship

It’s now increasingly clear that big segments of the chattering classes will not rest until President Obama is somehow forced to stop talking about bipartisanship.
That’s been a standard theme for some progressives, going back to the early stages of the 2008 campaign, who have fretted that Obama will needlessly sacrifice progressive principles and constituencies in the vain pursuit of nonexistent Republican support. But now you can add a big MSM source: Politico‘s top honchos Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, who have published sort of a primal scream on the subject.
Even though VandeHei and Allen acknowledge that the destruction of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, and the happiness of conservatives to remain “the party of No” are the most important factors contributing to polarization, they just can’t resist blaming Obama and Democrats at least as much as the opposition:

President Barack Obama is on the warpath over myths and distortions about health care reform, but he’s spreading one of his own: that there’s any chance of genuinely bipartisan health care legislation reaching his desk this fall.
In truth, Democratic offers to reach across the aisle — and Republican demands that they do so — are largely a charade, performed for the benefit of a huge bloc of practical-minded voters who hunger for the two parties to work together and are mystified that it never seems to happen.

And that’s the bulk of their analysis: independent voters want bipartisanship, so both parties, with equal dishonesty, are pretending to pursue it. He said, she said, and he and she are both lying.
Well, whatever. Allen and VandeHei may think that pursuing bipartisanship in the knowledge that it largely won’t materialize is just dishonest pandering by Obama, or an exercise in finger-pointing, but I beg to differ. Republicans have consciously chosen to systematically oppose health care reform–not just Obama’s version, but any version–and it actually is important for Americans to understand that in terms of what they can expect to happen next if Obama’s initiative is defeated. There is no Plan B for the GOP, or for the country. By “reaching out,” Obama is forcing Republicans to ever-more-explicitly make that choice, and as the latest polling shows, the public is beginning to “get it.”
Moreover, the “wedge” Obama is seeking to create between Republicans and independents is reflected in his formulation–generally ignored by Allen and VandeHei–that he’s trying to utilize “the best ideas of both parties” even when he’s not getting cooperation from the other side. His whole health care scheme relies on a competitive private-insurance-based system for universal coverage. Many of his proposals for “bending the curve” on health care spending and for Medicare reforms were once championed by Republicans. Yes, of course, Republicans quickly abandon and even repudiate these themes once Obama picks them up, but after a while, people begin to notice the pattern. And that’s both real and honest.
In reality, the biggest single problem with Obama’s rhetoric of bipartisanship isn’t that Republicans rise to the bait by refusing to cooperate. It is, instead, the media coverage of the issue which blames both sides equally, dismisses Obama’s outreach as cynical pandering, and recommends that the ignorant public forget about changing the culture of Washington, or either party.

5 comments on “Burying Bipartisanship

  1. Rocket 88 on

    Damn, an intelligent article followed by three intelligent comments in a row. No wonder Democrats can’t govern for long — they think. If the GOP has shown us anything, it’s that thinking politicians don’t last long.

  2. john patton on

    I think you are conflating two issues here – bipartisanship and accomodation of special interests.
    there are indeed serious and legitimate questions about the extent of the compromises Obama has made with drug companies and financial firms and the Blue Dogs. Many progressives disagree wiht Obama on these decisions and I can’t remember Ed belittling their issues and concerns, although he sometimes indicates that he personally supports Obama’s choices.
    But what Ed is talking about here is the media’s criticism of Obama’s strategy in relation to Republicans, which is a logically and politically distinct question. Your criticisms of Obama’s compromises are important, but do not directly related to what Ed is actually saying here.

  3. Otherish on

    And by the way, continually using canned pejorative terms such as “the chattering classes” or “the commentariat,” however emotionally satisfying, is neither honorable nor cogent. Instead of resorting to ad hominem, it would probably count as “mature and civil” simply to address arguments on the merits.

  4. Otherish on

    Can’t say I see the logic here. It seems to me there’s a very legitimate question as to whether Obama could and should have pushed the whole discussion to the left by aggressively calling out the Blue Dogs and the health industry from the start in a big national campaign. Look at how much Baucus and Ross take from Big Health. Then look at who Rahm yells at. Baucus and Ross, who are flouting their party’s stated platform? Nah. Instead, he yells at MoveOn for calling out the Blue Dogs.
    The deals he has cut and defended on behalf of Goldman Sachs and friends don’t even look bipartisan, they just look corrupt. Likewise agreeing with PhRMA to ban drug price negotiations. How is that good policy for anyone other than PhRMA and the pols taking their bribes?
    It’s only bipartisan in the sense that it has long been a GOP tactic to take bribes from the rich and big industry. Do you really believe these are the GOP’s “best ideas”?
    In that sense, you seem to be saying that because Obama is _sincere_ in using GOP tactics to hurt the poor and the middle class, he’s the winner. Why would we want such a person to win in the first place?
    The reason it’s unpopular (with the moderate, common-sense, pragmatic left) for Obama to do rightwing things is not because the right won’t join him. It’s because it’s rightwing. It’s because people who believe in fighting for the disenfranchised don’t generally like a President they just got elected on that basis to turn around and sell out the disenfranchised in favor of corrupt windfalls for the executive class and big industry.
    You seem endlessly to avoid addressing the substance of this complaint.

  5. James Vega on

    Long after nonviolent protests had won major victories against segregation in the early 60’s a wide spectrum of critics continued to ridicule the strategy as obviously impractical. “the KKK isn’t nonviolent,” they said, “you can’t just let people walk all over you.” Many in the media equally dismissed the strategy as hopelessly naive and goody-goody. It was certainly well-intentioned, but sturdy realists like them knew it would never really work.
    Fast forward to 2009. At each key step Obama takes the commentariat gravely explains that bipartisanship can’t possibly work because the Republicans won’t play along. Obama’s repeated invocation of the idea intellectually offends them becasue each time it is so rudely rebuffed (“no Republican votes for the stimulus”, “Wilson sneers ‘liar'” etc.)
    Meanwhile, Obama’s agenda continues to gradually move forward and opinion polls show the public continues to recognize and approve of his efforts at outreach – and dislike the failure of Republicans to respond.
    Of course, being the commentariat, the critics will always end up being right. When a health care reform package finally passes they will sagely explain that it was in spite of Obama’s efforts at bipartisanship, rather then because of them. That has to be the case because, as everyone knows, this bipartisanship thing obviously doesn’t work.


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