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What Would a “Bipartisan” Obama Look Like? (Hint: A Lot Like the One We’re Seeing)

Over at RealClarPolitics, Jay Cost takes Obama to task for failing to live up to his promises of bipartisanship. Cost writes:

Instead, my criticism of the President is that he promised to be above this. He made that the core pledge of his candidacy, the principal reason he should receive the nomination and ultimately the presidency over the dozen or so other contenders across both parties who had better résumés but had been part of the partisan hackery. It was always going to be damned near impossible to move beyond heated partisanship – given all the structural forces that have been at work since the founding, and the ones that have been increasing in the last half century or so. In my opinion, that excuses President Obama for not moving us beyond it – but it does not excuse candidate Obama from promising that he could. Either he knew better and should not have made that promise (and, by extension, should not have run, given the centrality of this promise) – or he didn’t know better and was just naïve. Either way, it is appropriate to hold him to account.

What Cost accuses Obama of is acting in bad faith — he promised “bipartisanship” and hasn’t delivered.

Cost is right, undoubtedly, that Obama’s rhetoric about “bipartisanship” was partly a campaign tactic. It was, on the one hand, a politically helpful extension of Obama’s 2004 DNC keynote speech, which was the only thing that most voters knew him by early in the primary campaign. On the other hand, it was a polite way to draw a contrast with Hillary Clinton, who’s core weakness may have been a perception that she would be a polarizing political actor.

It is perhaps worth pausing to note that two key circumstances changed from late 2007, when Obama was most frequently using his “bipartisan” rhetoric. The first circumstance was that John McCain, who himself had a strong reputation for bipartisanship, became the Republican nominee. “Bipartisanship”, therefore, became less important as a differentiator for Obama than it might have been against a more unapologetically party-line Republican like a Mitt Romney or a Fred Thompson. The other contingency, of course, was the economic collapse that accelerated throughout 2008 and particularly in September and October of last year. Once the economy fell apart, people weren’t so concerned about abstractions like bipartisanship — they simply wanted the problems solved.

More essentially, however, bipartisanship, as Obama intended the term, should not necessarily be confused for “compromise”. Rather, it implied behaving in good-faith — hearing out opinions from different sides of the aisle and identifying the best ideas regardless of their partisan origin. Bipartisanship, to Obama, was a process rather than an outcome. He could plausibly have been acting in a bipartisan manner, even if he hadn’t gotten many Republicans to go along with his agenda.

As Mark Schmitt wrote in his excellent article on the Obama’s “theory of change” in December 2007:

What I find most interesting about Obama’s approach to bipartisanship is how seriously he takes conservatism. As Michael Tomasky describes it in his review of The Audacity of Hope, “The chapters boil down to a pattern: here’s what the right believes about subject X, and here’s what the left believes; and while I basically side with the left, I think the right has a point or two that we should consider, and the left can sometimes get a little carried away.” What I find fascinating about his language about unity and cross-partisanship is that it is not premised on finding Republicans who agree with him, but on taking in good faith the language and positions of actual conservatism — people who don’t agree with him. That’s very different from the longed-for consensus of the Washington Post editorial page.

The reason the conservative power structure has been so dangerous, and is especially dangerous in opposition, is that it can operate almost entirely on bad faith. It thrives on protest, complaint, fear: higher taxes, you won’t be able to choose your doctor, liberals coddle terrorists, etc. One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that’s not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists — it’s a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It’s how you deal with people with intractable demands — put ‘em on a committee. Then define the committee’s mission your way.

Perhaps I’m making assumptions about the degree to which Obama is conscious that his pitch is a tactic of change. But his speeches show all the passion of Edwards or Clinton, his history is as a community organizer and aggressive reformer (I first heard his name 10 years ago because he was on the board of the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, which was the leading supporter of real campaign finance reform at the time, and he has shown extraordinary political skill in drawing Senator Clinton into a clumsy overreaction. If we understand Obama’s approach as a means, and not the limit of what he understands about American politics, it has great promise as a theory of change, probably greater promise than either “work for it” or “demand it,” although we’ll need a large dose of hard work and an engaged social movement as well.

Note that, in Schmitt’s explication of Obama’s “bipartisanship”, we are operating somewhat in the conditional tense. We start by assuming that one’s opponents are acting in good faith, extending an olive branch to them and therefore pressing the reset button on the ongoing game of tit-for-tat. If the opponent demonstrates that they are not acting in good faith, however, all bets are off and we are back in the partisan game.

Have the Republicans in Congress been behaving in good faith? It is easy to argue that they have not been:

Exhibit A: The Stimulus Package.
The stimulus package proposed by the Obama administration contained less public spending, and more tax cuts, than most liberal economists were calling for. And yet, it received zero Republican votes in the House. Nor did any House Republicans vote for the conference report after the bill had passed the Senate, even though it represented tangible movement toward the Republican position.

Exhibit B: TARP. Sixteen Republican Senators — Bennett, Bond, Burr, Chambliss, Collins, Coburn, Ensign, Graham, Grassley, Hutchison, Isakson, Martinez, McCain, McConnell, Specter and Thune — voted to withhold the second half of the $700 billion in TARP funds, even though they had voted to authorize the TARP program in October when George W. Bush was still in office. Although one can certainly have changed one’s position on TARP based on the facts and circumstances on the ground, it is unlikely that almost half of the remaining Republican delegation would have changed their position within 60 days based on the sanctity of the ideas alone.

Exhibit C: The Budget. One fairly inscrutable characteristic of good faith negotiation is that one is willing to offer an intellectually coherent alternative. This is not something which can be said of the Republican budget, where the numbers, such as they are, don’t really add up.

Exhibit D: Nomination Holds. Republican efforts to delay the appointment of two key members of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, as well as his Labor Secretary, are hard to justify from any position other than partisan gamesmanship.

If there is a credible case to be made that the Republicans — or at least the House Republicans — started out with any intentions of compromising, I have yet to see it. Instead, the House Republicans voted as a near-uniform block against issues as trivial as a bill to delay the date of the digital TV changeover. Not only have they not compromised, but they never seemed to have any intention to do so.

If it is easy to demonstrate Republican bad faith, however, it is more difficult to prove that Obama has been behaving in good faith. The White House, certainly, has had at least one moment — the decision to go nuclear on Rush Limbaugh — in which it explicitly appeared to be fanning the partisan flames.

What isn’t clear to me, however, is what exactly folks like Cost would have liked the Administration to have done differently. Obama pressed hard — although with some hiccups — on the stimulus package, but its magnitude was less than what many liberals were hoping for. He is attempting to push forward, through his budget, issues like health care and cap-and-trade, but these things were at the core of his positioning throughout the primaries and general election.

Meanwhile, Obama has angered the left on a number of issues ranging from the decision to have Rick Warren give the invocation at the inaugural, to the bank bailout, to his abortive attempt to name Judd Gregg as his commerce secretary, to his appointment of Larry Summers, to his committing additional troops to Afghanistan, to his position on state secrets. Obama has also come in for some liberal fire for his purported lack of urgency on issues like the Employee Free Choice Act and repealing the ban on openly gay troops in the military.

A more robust interpretation/criticism of Obama’s “bipartisan” positioning is that he is playing a game he knows he can’t lose. For one thing, the President has the advantage of the bully pulpit, and (particularly when as rhetorically gifted as Obama) can therefore frame the debate in advantageous terms. For another, Obama has public opinion behind him on most of the key items of his agenda, such as health care, the stimulus package, and the reversion of the tax code to its Clinton-era norms. It is easier to appear reasonable when the average voter starts out agreeing with you. Finally, as Schmitt suggested more than a year ago, Obama may have known full well that Republicans weren’t about to seek compromise, nor would it necessarily have been politically advantageous for them to do so. If partisan squabbling is inevitable, it is useful to have pre-positioned oneself in advance as its victim rather than its instigator.

The object of the game, moreover, is not really to appeal to Republican voters, whose numbers are too scarce to make them politically relevant. Rather, it is to put on a good show for moderates and independents, in the hopes of placing sufficient pressure on moderate Democrats like Evan Bayh and moderate Republicans like Susan Collins to back the Administration’s agenda.

What I don’t think Obama can be accused of, however, is breaking any promises. In fact, he basically telegraphed his strategy with the whole Rick Warren thing: make a show of appealing to conservatives here and there, and perhaps avoid issues that are symbolically important to the left but which drain one’s political capital, while all the while continuing to push forward the core elements of a conventionally Democratic (but hardly radical) agenda. Very little about the Administration’s strategy has been surprising. Whether it will be successful or not, we will have to see.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.