Friday, January 30, 2009


In keeping with his promises of bipartisanship and working with Republicans instead of against them, President Obama met with GOP leaders in the House and Senate this week to get their opinions on the proposed stimulus package. Though the media spent a lot of time reporting how Obama had ended discussion on one point by saying, "I won," the meetings were apparently very cordial and productive, even according to GOP leaders. The bill was even amended to be more to Congressional Republicans' liking.

In return, House Republicans repaid the President's attempt to reach out to them by voting against the President's stimulus package unanimously yesterday, in a move John Boehner, apparently not ironically, called "bipartisan." I don't think that word means what Boehner thinks it means. That aside, the question now is whether Obama was foolish to try to include Republicans in the first place, and whether he should now seek to return the bill to its original form and take out the concessions put in to appease the House GOP members.

But first, let's consider the reasons why this may have happened. On Morning Joe this morning, NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd noted that one of the reasons this may have happened is because most of the moderate Republican House members aren't in the House anymore, having been defeated by Democratic rivals. The remaining House GOP members tend to be from very conservative districts and, according to Todd, and thus the most ideological. If this is true, and I suspect it probably is, then the sweep of the Democratic victory in last fall's elections, on the coattails of President Obama, may have ironically had unintential effect of making it very difficult for Democrats to work in a bipartisan manner with Republicans.

There's a good parallel, I think, between this situation and what has been happening in the medical world with antibiotics the past sixty years. Antibiotics, when used improperly, will destroy all the easily-killed bacteria and leave the bacteria most resistant, which is how we get antibiotic-resistant strains that antibiotics then can't cure. The Democrats, in the last election, essentially did the work of the antibiotic -- they "killed" off the moderate Republicans, the ones that they could have worked with, and left behind only the far right Republicans who won't work with the Democrats. The Democrats basically created, as an unintended consequence of victory, a GOP House caucus that will actually be more difficult to work with and less interested in compromise than before the elections, despite the election resoundingly showing broad support for a change in policy away from what the ideological Republicans advocate.

So, on his way to the White House, Obama promises bipartisanship, leading to Democratic victories sweeping moderate House Republicans out of office, and thereby creating a House GOP caucus uninterested in bipartisanship. Unintended consequences indeed. So, where from here?

I don't think Obama made a mistake in reaching out to House Republicans, even though he got slapped in the face in return. Obama promised bipartisanship and, I think, genuinely wants to govern with bipartisan support. I think making the attempt to bring the House Republicans in was worthwhile, in that it will be easier for the administration to deal with the crises facing the nation if the Republicans are working with the administration instead of against it, contributing to policy instead of obstructing it. There was a risk involved with reaching out, obviously, the risk that exactly what happened would happen, that the Republicans would slap the hand Obama reached out to them and then disingenuously try to spin the administration's attempts at compromise as "partisanship." But, on balance, I think the risk was worth the potential reward, even though it didn't work out.

I think, however, that Obama almost certainly has to take back the compromises he made with the House Republicans now that they have unanimously voted against the bill. He can't afford to let his desire for bipartisanship be construed by the House GOP members as weakness, and can't afford to let them get what they want at no cost, since the whole point of voting against the stimulus package is to be able to blame the Democrats if it doesn't work or work well. He has to make the point clear that compromises are given in return for support, not for free. Obama may want a new era of bipartisanship, but there can't be bipartisanship unless both sides are willing. He can't enable the Republicans by letting stunts like this work in the name of bipartisanship, or else he'll just encourage the House GOP not to work with the administration in the future. Bipartisanship comes from mutual respect, not capitulation. And I fear leaving the compromises to stand despite the GOP's actions would be tantamount to just that.

Especially in light of the more ideologically polarized House GOP caucus now in the Congress. The remaining House GOP members are the ones who will do things like the stunt they just pulled, who will leap upon perceived weakness, and who will try to spin whatever Obama does in terms of their ideological battle. They're a virulent group and they can't be allowed to fester or Obama will spend the next four years battling over and over with them, when a firm response now might make the Republicans think twice about becoming the permanent minority party and decide to take advantage of what the Democrats didn't have for the past eight years: a President in power who isn't actively thumbing his nose at them at every possible opportunity.


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