Obama and Bipartisanship — It Takes Five to Tango

Barack Obama campaigned on change. One of the most fundamental changes he promised was a new politics committed to finding bipartisan solutions whenever possible.

In his first week as president, President Obama has proven he is serious about keeping his promise.

But in today's Washington, it really takes more than two to do the bipartisan tango. In fact, it actually will take at least five to make true bipartisanship work.

First came President Obama, who broke all precedent in his first week by traveling to Capitol Hill to meet with Republican House members to try to win support for his proposed economic stimulus package.

Then there are four other players who must become willing partners with the president if bipartisan government is to become a reality, rather than an idealistic dream: the House Republicans, the House Democrats, the Senate Republicans and the Senate Democrats.

So far, the most obvious impediment to bipartisan government at a time of severe economic crisis has been the House Republicans.

It is true that after the president's unprecedented visit in his first week with the House Republican Conference, he was courteously, even warmly, received by GOP members, with multiple comments about what a "nice guy" Mr. Obama is.

But then what happened? Not one Republican voted for the stimulus package when it reached the House floor — not even one moderate, or moderate-conservative (that is, if there are any left in the House GOP conference).

That meant the House Republicans wanted and were able to enforce 100 percent partisan, party-enforced discipline to oppose the Obama-sponsored stimulus bill. They achieved this impressive unanimity even after the president added tax cuts he must have hoped would gain some GOP support, although many liberal Democrats, who preferred more infrastructure investments, and Blue Dog Democrats, who are budget hawks, were unhappy about those tax cut proposals.

Why did all the GOP House members choose to vote in such obvious lockstep?

It is a political mystery.

There may be an understandable explanation in human anatomical language — as in the knee-jerk reaction. But it's virtually impossible to explain in political terms, since a majority of Americans, according to all the polls, want bipartisanship in this time of economic crisis and support the need for an economic stimulus and infrastructure package.

Some Republicans argue that the House Democrats bear the blame for the GOP opposition. They claim Democratic House leaders shut them out entirely as the bill was drafted and finalized.

I know what the Democrats will say if this is true: The Republicans excluded Democrats almost entirely from consultation on many important House bills during the 12 years between the 1994 Gingrich GOP "Revolution" takeover and the November 2006 victory of House Democrats winning back a majority.

But I am hoping House Democrats will resist the impulse to repeat the "gotcha" cycles of "they did it to us, so let's do it to them" that have plagued our politics all the way back to Watergate.

This endless loop of partisan "we won — you lost"/“it's payback time” attitudes, exhibited by both political parties over the years, is exactly what has alienated so much of the American electorate for such a long time. This is why the Obama message of fundamental change carried such resonance and power in his 2008 presidential campaign.

The other two players in President Obama's bipartisan mission, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans, offer greater hope. Perhaps it is because of smaller numbers, or a greater tradition of collegiality, but signs are that the Democratic and Republican senators do have a commanding center — going back to the "Gang of 14" — that can achieve more than 60 or 70 bipartisan votes for Obama's program if they work together.

In the final analysis, true, bipartisan, solutions-focused government will not be achieved unless congressional Democrats and Republicans in both chambers see this moment as a historic opportunity to seek the broad centrist coalition that this country desperately needs at a time of crisis.

The key phrases are "what the country needs" and "bipartisan solutions" — which, by definition, must mean a compromise of purist ideological positions on the left and right, resulting in a blend of good liberal ideas with good conservative ideas.

Yes, it is possible that we can all reach a point where the expression "good liberal ideas" is not an oxymoron to conservatives, and vice versa to liberals.

Yes, I still believe in political miracles. Yes we can.

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