Partisanship, by the Bye
by Hendrik Hertzberg
Throughout the fortnight-long Battle of the Stimulus Package—the Capitol Hill confrontation that culminates this week in a signing ceremony for a historically unprecedented piece of legislation that will inject more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars’ worth of adrenaline into America’s fluttering economic heart—one question preoccupied commentators and observers, especially those desperate for relief from the daunting substance of the matter: was President Obama being “bipartisan” enough?
Some discussed the question calmly, others less so; but there was something like a consensus that if non-trivial numbers of Republican legislators failed to support the stimulus bill the fault, and the obloquy, would be Obama’s. “The bill will be judged a political success not simply if it becomes law, but if it’s deemed ‘bi-partisan,’ ” ABC’s “The Note” Web site warned. The Los Angeles Times, while calling the bill’s quick passage in the House of Representatives a “big legislative victory” for Obama, cautioned that “it was clear that his efforts so far had not delivered the post-partisan era that he called for in his inauguration address.” (The man had been in office for eight days—a tight schedule for era-delivering.) On the Senate floor, the remarks of Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, provided evidence that an age of perpetual political peace had not yet dawned. “This bill stinks!” Senator Graham exclaimed. And:The process that’s led to this bill stinks! . . . There is no negotiation going on here! Nobody is negotiating! We’re making this up as we go! The polling numbers are scaring the hell out of everybody, and they’re in a panic! They’re running from one corner of the Capitol to the other to try to cobble votes together to lower the cost of the bill to say we solved the problem! This is not the way you spend a trillion dollars!The “process,” admittedly, was a hurried one; it had to be, what with the banking system frighteningly close to collapse, the economy in its deepest crisis since the nineteen-thirties, and job losses, which approached three million last year, accelerating to more than a half million a month. Still, the President found time for cordiality, inviting Republicans from both Houses of Congress to join him for cocktails, a Super Bowl party, and more cocktails. Nor was his “outreach” purely social. “This was not a drive-by P.R. stunt, and I actually thought it might be,” Zach Wamp, of Tennessee, told the Times after he and his Republican House colleagues finished a long session with the President. “It was a substantive, in-depth discussion with our conference.” More to the point, the bill they were discussing had already been tailored to soothe Republican sensibilities. It included tax cuts as well as direct spending, and its size, however huge by normal standards, was not even half the output—two trillion dollars—that the recession is expected to drain from the economy in the next two years.
After the Senate passed the stimulus, which Sean Hannity, on Fox News, denounced as “the European Socialist Act of 2009,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, pronounced it “a dramatic move in the direction of indeed turning America into Western Europe.” Whether or not greater income equality, better health, and fewer prisons would really be a dystopian nightmare, McConnell’s vision of “the Europeanization of America” has already come true in a way that bears directly on the question of “bipartisanship”: what might be called America’s parliamentary parties have come to resemble their disciplined European counterparts. As recently as the nineteen-sixties, for reasons of history and origins, the Democrats were a stapled-together collection of Southern reactionaries, big-city hacks, and urban and agrarian liberals; the Republicans were a jumble of troglodyte conservatives, Yankee moderates, and the odd progressive. Ideological incoherence made bipartisanship feasible. The post-civil-rights, post-Vietnam realignment, along with the gerrymandered creation of safe districts, has given us—on Capitol Hill, at least—an almost uniformly rightist G.O.P. and a somewhat less uniformly progressive array of Democrats.
In 1981, President Reagan’s tax cuts passed with the help of forty-eight cross-party votes in the House and thirty-seven in the Senate. Obama’s stimulus got zero and three, respectively. (Getting those three—a practical necessity, thanks to the scandalous routinization of the filibuster—precipitated the vote-cobbling scramble that Senator Graham was hyperventilating about.) Last week’s sudden withdrawal, under Party pressure, of Judd Gregg, a conservative Republican senator from New Hampshire, as Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce was another signal that Hill Republicans have opted for total war. But this does not mean that Obama’s hopes for bipartisanship have been entirely in vain. A Gallup poll taken last week found twenty-eight per cent of Republican voters (and fifty-six per cent of independents) backing the stimulus. It had the support not only of the labor federations but also of the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States Chamber of Commerce. And four Republican governors—California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, Connecticut’s Jodi Rell, Florida’s Charlie Crist, and Vermont’s Jim Douglas—joined fifteen of their Democratic colleagues in signing a letter calling for its enactment. A Republican governor, you might say, is sort of like a Republican congressman—except with actual responsibilities.
At the President’s first full-scale news conference last week, two of the thirteen questions were about bipartisanship. As usual, Obama took the long view. The American people, he said, “understand that there have been a lot of bad habits built up here in Washington, and it’s going to take time to break down some of those bad habits.” His overtures to Republicans “were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time.” At the same time, he was firm about his “bottom line,” which,when it comes to the recovery package, is: send me a bill that creates or saves four million jobs, because everybody has to be possessed with a sense of urgency about putting people back to work, making sure that folks are staying in their homes, that they can send their kids to college. That doesn’t negate the continuing efforts that I’m going to make to listen and engage with my Republican colleagues. And, hopefully, the tone that I’ve taken, which has been consistently civil and respectful, will pay some dividends over the long term.Asked what he had learned from the stimulus tussle, Obama said again that “old habits are hard to break,” and added:Now, just in terms of the historic record here, the Republicans were brought in early and were consulted. And you’ll remember that, when we initially introduced our framework, they were pleasantly surprised and complimentary about the tax cuts that were presented in that framework. Those tax cuts are still in there. I mean, I suppose what I could have done is started off with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some, and then let them take credit for all of them. And maybe that’s the lesson I learned. But there was consultation. There will continue to be consultation.Fifty years ago, the civil-rights movement understood that nonviolence can be an effective weapon even if—or especially if—the other side refuses to follow suit. Obama has a similarly tough-minded understanding of the political uses of bipartisanship, which, even if it fails as a tactic for compromise, can succeed as a tonal strategy: once the other side makes itself appear intransigently, destructively partisan, the game is half won. Obama is learning to throw the ball harder. But it’s not Rovian hardball he’s playing. More like Gandhian hardball.