Thursday, February 19, 2009

Not Again

David Broder at the Washington Post seems to think that the failure of the GOP to respond favorably to Obama's overtures means that - you guessed it - Obama should continue to reach out to the GOP.
The critics agree that the effort at bipartisanship should end.

I hope Obama isn't listening. It's the worst advice he has received.

It starts from a false premise: that the stimulus bill proves the failure of outreach to Republicans.


If Obama writes off the Republicans in advance, he will end up with a watered-down bill -- or nothing.

Broder then goes on to (wisely) praise Senators Collins, Snowe and Specter, and (far less wisely) point to them as examples of how bipartisanship is supposed to work. He goes on to mention other key figures in the country's bipartisan past, like Harry Truman and the Johnson/Dirksen/McCulloch triad. He also points to key figures in the current Congress who he thinks are necessary to particular policy items.

This argument is facile for this reason: the historical examples he cites are powerful figures precisely because they were the exceptions to the rule. They were a handful of persons in a large and otherwise intransigent body who had the foresight and courage to buck the party machinery and accomplish things. Had the Congresspeople Broder recognizes been truly following the bipartisan spirit they would have brought along far larger portions of their own party to at least compromise with their respective administrations. Their failure to do so makes them exceptional - exceptional as as much in not following the norm as in their work and achievements. The bipartisanship Broder promotes in their cases stem, not from the willingness of the majority to reach out to them, but their own courage to stand up to their colleagues and take the bold steps that were required. The current crop of Congressional Republicans has little such courage.

The argument, in the current climate, is flawed for other reasons.

The stimulus vote in the House (his shining example of bipartisan success), following the compromises with the Republicans, was actually closer than that on the original bill. Compromising with the moderate right actually cost Obama's plan votes in the House. The GOP remained a staunch anti-stimulus bloc, and the changes were enough to turn some would-be backers among the Democrats from continuing to support the package. Looking back to the last line I quoted, it seems already that, by not writing off the Republicans, the administration ended up with a watered-down bill anyway - and it lost Obama votes from his own party in the bargain. Constructive engagement of the opposition should result in broader, not narrower, support; in the current atmosphere achieving that broader support through bipartisan approaches does not seem especially likely.

Second, the GOP shows no sign of anything but a hardening of its positions despite the outreach. The three senators Broder lauds are now targets for Republican efforts to replace them with more doctrinaire absolutists simply because they were willing to work with the administration and their Democratic peers. The willingness he sees in the Republicans to negotiate, embodied in these three, is imperiled - not by calls for Obama to abandon his outreach but by the adamant anti-Democratic extremes from among their own ranks. In California, the same logic is already at work: the leadership of the party is being reshuffled simply because the leaders hinted they might be able to work with the majority, and intransigent hard-liners are filling those spaces. The opposition voices Obama would need to continue a bipartisanship approach are quickly being silenced.

Further, as the GOP increasingly takes its marching orders not from the moderates within its ranks but from the shrill right-wing fringe, the opportunities for such landmark achievements dwindle. The House minority leadership has already stated - more than a few times - that they intend to oppose Obama initiatives merely on principle. They have already shown that they have no interest in the details of Democratic proposals so long as the proposals do not originate from their own ranks. The content is immaterial: only the source matters. So far, the opponents of Democratic efforts are making themselves look very stupid, as their claims about the stimulus in particular are so easily disproved. However, the likelihood that they could find something they can denounce where their arguments are less simple to deconstruct is, given the language of most federal legislation, quite high, so it is possible that at some point the tactic might actually work. As the rank-and-file back bench takes its guidance ever more from Limbaugh et al and less from their leadership or even from their own local constituencies, the language becomes more extreme, more confrontational, less reasonable and less willing to compromise on anything. This is not a conducive environment for cross-party solutions.

Some of Broder's candidates for outreach also fall short of the measure of cooperative or amenable. McCain, in particular, is impossible to reach given his recent rhetoric and party-line voting record. None of his other examples have shown the slightest willingness to stray from their party's dogmatic opposition to anything that doesn't equate to tax cuts, expanded military and narrowly-constrained legislated morality. It seems foolhardy to continue to reach out to the opposition when the potential net gain is a mere three Senate votes.

In short, the early approach of the Obama administration to engage the Republicans has proved remarkably unproductive in the grand scheme. The odds of anything resembling successful cooperation grow longer as the GOP solidifies its know-nothing opposition and attacks those few among its ranks willing to listen to the administration and the majority in either house. The far right noise-making machine is trumpeting such intransigence as a victory and calling for more, and so far the back bench (which bipartisan efforts will need) appears to be listening. Had we a less adamant, less doctrinaire opposition party to deal with, bipartisanship would have merit. Without one there is little point in proceeding with such an approach. The outreach is indeed a failure - not of Democrat efforts, but rather of responsible stewardship and conscientious governance on the part of nearly all Republicans in Congress.

It's a pleasant fiction for Broder to imagine that somehow sufficient Congressional GOPers can be swayed to some acceptance of the Democratic policies. In this climate, though, it is definitely a fiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment