The president wants bipartisanship; the right has promised him all-out war
Republican Judd Gregg pulled out of Obama’s cabinet after coming under intense pressure from his party’s base
Goodbye to all that? Washington, it appears, has other ideas. Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of pragmatic liberalism and an end to frothy ideological warfare in Washington. From the beginning of the campaign he went out of his way not to engage in Republican-bashing or even Clinton-bashing. He was intent on bringing reason and open-mindedness to America’s often fraught ideological debates. He was incandescently clear that he rejected the toxic partisan atmosphere that had dominated the Bill Clinton and George W Bush years.
Since November he has largely walked the walk. Yes, there is a down payment on future government spending in the stimulus bill – on healthcare, the environment and education. But given the urgency of the economic downturn and the few tools left to counter it, a little overshooting is not the worst option in the next 18 months. And he did his best to accommodate Republican concerns – adding deeper and wider tax cuts than his own party was comfortable with.
He went to Capitol Hill to talk directly with members of the other party in the more ideological House of Representatives – spending more time with them than even Bush did. He asked three Republicans to be a part of his cabinet, including Robert Gates, Bush’s defence secretary. He went to dinner with key Republican columnists before reaching out to those who had supported him in the election. And this open hand was met with a punch in the face.
From the outset, the Republicans in Washington pored over the bill to find trivial issues to make hay with. They found some small funding for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases prevention; they jumped up and down about renovating the national mall; they went nuts over a proposal – wait for it – to make some government buildings more energy-efficient; they acted as if green research and federal funds for new school building were the equivalent of funding terrorism. And this after eight years in which they managed to turn a surplus into a trillion-dollar deficit and added a cool $32 trillion to the debt the next generation will have to pay for. Every now and again their chutzpah and narcissism take one’s breath away. But it’s all they seem to know.
John McCain gives you the flavour. Fresh from a dinner in his honour hosted by Obama, he abruptly dismissed the stimulus package as the “same old” spending of the distant Democratic past. His closest Republican ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, declared: “This bill stinks.”
Pete Sessions, chairman of the Republican congressional committee, explained that the Republican strategy was going to be modelled on jihadist insurgency. “I’m not joking,” he added. “Insurgency we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban.”
Rush Limbaugh, the dominant figure among the Republican base, fresh from broadcasting a ditty called Barack, the Magic Negro, declared in the first week of the new Congress that he hoped the new president would fail. The stimulus bill got no Republican votes in the House, and only three Republicans – all from the Obama-voting states of Pennsylvania and Maine – backed him in the Senate. McCain went to the floor of the Senate to growl that three votes did not make the bill bipartisan.
Bitter? At the end of last week we saw just how bitter. One of the Republicans who had agreed to serve in Obama’s cabinet, Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, abruptly pulled out, after what he described as “fair warning” to the president.
Gregg had been under intense pressure from the Republican base, especially in his home state, for cooperating with the devil. He claimed the reason for his sudden withdrawal was that he couldn’t stomach the stimulus. Yet only a week earlier he had said: “We need a robust [stimulus package]. I think the one that’s pending is in the range we need. I do believe it’s a good idea to do it at two levels, which this bill basically does, which is immediate stimulus and long-term initiatives which actually improve our competitiveness and our productivity.” He then tried to argue that his authority over the 2010 census as commerce secretary had been compromised. But that turned out not to be true, either: it was just that a census that could well add millions of Hispanic voters to the rolls had the Republicans eager to prevent a Republican imprimatur on it.
Gregg was a victim of fast-shifting Republican politics. Reeling from the election, watching a new president coopt some of their number and get alarmingly high approval ratings from the public, members of the opposition party made a decision to become an insurgency.
From the disciplined House vote against any stimulus bill to the Gregg withdrawal, they are busy trying to revive the clear ideological warfare of the 1990s. As they did with Clinton 16 years ago, they are going to war. The context – the worst global downturn in decades – is irrelevant. If you have safe Republican seats in a party dominated intellectually by rigid ideologues, then your path of least resistance is total political warfare. It is certainly easier than forging difficult and messy legislative compromises that might even redound to the president’s advantage if the economy recovers.
It’s not clear, however, that total war on the president is going to be a better way forward. Before the latest twist, a Gallup poll found that Obama’s handling of the stimulus package had almost twice the public support of the Republicans’. In a period of acute economic anxiety, Americans outside the Republican base may not be so thrilled to find a replay of the 1990s. Obama won in part because he seemed not part of that drama.
The Democrats and the liberal base have responded to all this with a mixture of cynicism and their own partisanship. They rolled their eyes at Obama’s outreach to Republicans; they hated the inclusion of the other party in the cabinet and had to swallow hard not to complain about the postpartisan rhetoric. Their cynicism is well earned. But my bet is that Obama also understands that this is, in the end, the sweet spot for him. He has successfully branded himself by a series of conciliatory gestures as the man eager to reach out. If this is spurned, he can repeat the gesture until the public finds his opponents seriously off-key.
Ask yourself this question: who, in the end, won the partisan warfare of the 1990s – Clinton or the Republicans? In 1993 the Republicans thought they had dispatched Clinton for good; he won re-election hands down three years later and left office, even after Monica Lewinsky, with high ratings. Obama may not believe that history repeats itself. But he’s surely aware that it often rhymes.
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