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White House to Passive-Aggressive Hill Republicans: Put Up or Shut Up

Well, not in those words.

Still, Barack Obama’s comments to regional newspapers last night and the premise of a question and follow-up today at the White House gets to the heart of the current national political situation.

Here’s the quick play-by-play. Robert Gibbs was asked about yesterday’s interview in which the President said congressional Republicans needed to do more than just say no, they needed to present alternatives on the budget and economic recovery in general. The question was, congressional Republicans gave Obama a list in January that Obama said didn’t have “anything crazy” on it, so how come those ideas didn’t make it into the stimulus?

Gibbs replied that some Republican ideas were incorporated. He then pivoted to the budget discussion, noting the sturm und drang over the deficit and debt was fundamentally dishonest:

We have members of Congress rightly concerned about the growth of deficits and debt…. If they’re concerned about the deficit, the best way to exercise that concern, if you’re critical of what the administration has proposed, would be to come up with… an honest budgeting document that pays for both wars, that pays — takes into account natural disasters, or future money for economic and financial stability — and does so in a way that demonstrates clearly for the American people that you’re putting this country back on a path towards fiscal responsibility and fiscal sustainability.

(emphasis added)

The follow-up question was, if some Republican ideas were incorporated, how can the President say the Republican Party is a party of no ideas?

Gibbs replied, “you’ve heard certainly recently a lot more criticism than you’ve heard suggestions.”

Let’s unpack the back and forth. Obama didn’t say “the Republican Party is a party of no ideas.” Something like that would have made major headlines. Here’s what Obama said, as quoted by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

Opposition is always easy. Saying no to something is easy. Saying yes to something and figuring out how to solve problems and governing, that’s hard…. I’m not impressed by just being able to say no…. I think what will be interesting is the degree to which my Republican colleagues start putting forward an affirmative agenda that’s not based on ideology but on the very real struggles and pain that people are feeling right now around the country and how do we get this economy back on its feet.

So, yes, Obama clearly called out Republicans for taking the easy road. It’s a little different than saying Republicans are the party of no ideas. Obama could be taken to mean that he thinks Republicans have ideas, but aren’t sharing them.

Of course, the reason Gibbs didn’t push back on the inaccurate conflation and accepted the premise – that Obama had labeled the Republicans thusly – is likely that the White House isn’t all that concerned with the semantics and feels on comfortable ground with the American public as to this question.

And frankly, they’re correct to feel that way. A Newsweek poll, released last week, showed that even Republican voters don’t particularly think their party has ideas. On the question, “Is it your impression that Republicans who have opposed Barack Obama’s economic proposals have a plan of their own for turning the economy around, or not?” Republican respondents reported 45% yes, 42% no, 13% don’t know. Only 22% of Dems and 29% of independents thought Republicans had their own plan. Moreover, by a 52-42 margin, the same Republican respondents thought Obama had “made a reasonable effort to work with and listen to Congressional Republicans.”

Still, the same reporter who set up the seeming gotcha – getting Gibbs to say that Republican ideas were incorporated in the stimulus and following up with the premise that therefore Republicans by definition can’t be a party of no ideas – had reported contemporaneously what was on the one-page sheet of ideas Eric Cantor handed Obama in January:

“Tax deductions for some small businesses, making unemployment benefits tax free and a provision that would let businesses losing money carry the losses over to pay fewer taxes in a different fiscal year.”

That’s the party of ideas? That’s the gotcha? Obama calls out Republicans for just saying no on the budget and economic recovery debate, but he’s hypocritical for criticizing their lack of contribution because he received a summary sheet seven weeks ago that included the proposal of a few small business tax deductions?

The same summary-sheet-delivering Cantor said, only three days ago to the Washington Post: “What transpired . . . and will give us a shot in the arm going forward is that we are standing up on principle and just saying no.”

What’s going on here is that the White House sees the polls like everyone else, and isn’t particularly worried whether it’s an open question whether Republicans are seen as the party of no. Republicans themselves are about evenly split on this and nobody else is conflicted. That Republicans are the party of no is in the nation’s bloodstream already (you can always tell by the late night monologues), its leaders are explicitly embracing that strategy, and the emboldened White House is seizing on the opportunity for reinforcement.

Herman Melville wrote a short story called “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in 1853. The signature element of that story is that Bartleby is hired to do office work, and fairly quickly begins answering all requests by his employer with the simple, all-time passive-aggressive manifesto: “I would prefer not to.” No matter what is asked, “I would prefer not to.” No reasoning is offered, and the story is told through the eyes of the bewildered employer.

Bartleby refuses to perform any duties and refuses to leave. Eventually, the employer moves his entire business, and Bartleby stays in the old office. The new tenants can’t get Bartleby to leave, eventually he is hauled to prison for refusing to vacate, and ultimately Bartleby dies from preferring not to eat.

The current passive-aggressive stance of the Republican Party isn’t likely as pure as Bartleby’s. Readers only get a few clues but no explanation from Bartleby himself as to why he behaves as he does, while the GOP seems to calculate a long-term strategic upside to refusing to participate with Obama. Regardless of different motivations for passive-aggression, that behavior seems likely to generate about the same result for the Republican brand as Bartleby’s did for himself for as long as it is pursued.

To paraphrase a modern literary giant who contended with his own group of nihilists, “This (passive) aggression will not stand, man.”