Bipartisanship, Obama-style

A consistent part of candidate Barack Obama’s message was that he would usher in a “post-partisan era” of government — an administration dedicated to governing without bitterness or rancor. The mainstream media took him at his word, and the vision of this shining city on the hill reverberated strongly in the media message chamber.

There is evidence that voters liked Obama’s language and that it was an important piece of the message mix that eventually elevated the junior senator from Illinois to become the 44th president of the United States.

Republican consultant Frank Luntz has built his reputation on the power of words and what they mean to different people. His mantra, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear,” has become the slogan branding his former firm and has helped him sell enough books to live a comfortable life in semi-retirement. Frank and I have had our differences over the years, but I believe his pithy line encapsulates one of the most important truths in political communication.

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President Obama tried to put on a good show of bipartisan cooperation when shepherding his three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollars stimulus package through Congress. He met with Republican leaders, listened to their concerns and made a few compromises — even ones that offended liberals in his own party. In the end, however, he rammed the legislation through with no support from Republicans. The GOP leadership railed that this was not bipartisanship. The mainstream media gave the president credit for a “win,” but most echoed the Los Angeles Times view — 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 president responded that “I can’t sort of define bipartisanship as simply being willing to accept certain theories of theirs that we tried for eight years and didn’t work and the American people voted to change.” That message resonated with voters who seemed to understand that to the Republican leadership a bipartisan bill would have been one that neither Republicans nor Democrats could object to — in other words, the lowest common denominator.

Voters do not see bipartisanship as being defined by legislative battles alone. It is hubris for those inside the Beltway to use such a narrow definition of the term. Out in the real world, issues much larger and more sweeping define post-partisanship — something that plays out over a longer period of time. Wednesday’s editorial in this newspaper made the point that “bipartisanship is a process, not a goal” just as a presidency is a marathon, not a sprint. Recent events suggest that President Obama understands that, and the GOP leadership does not.

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While I don’t have any hard polling data to back this up, experience and instinct persuade me that for most voters, the roll call on the stimulus package is a faded memory and was not particularly surprising, or significant, at the time. Other demonstrations of bipartisanship resonate more powerfully with voters. President Obama’s appointments, for example, better illustrate his commitment to a post-partisan approach to government. Keeping Defense Secretary Robert Gates in control of the Pentagon, bringing former Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) to Transportation, sending Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to China as ambassador and nominating Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) as secretary of the Army are long-lasting, very visible symbols of the president’s commitment to practicing a new style of politics. (Not to mention, with the latter two, the political savvy of parking one potentially strong opponent for the presidency an ocean away and opening up a congressional seat that Democrats have some chance at winning.)

Contrast that long-term thinking to Republican reaction to Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Never mind that in the end a lot of Republicans will vote to confirm Judge Sotomayor. The risky strategy of unleashing the GOP attack dogs on her in the early stages of the nomination fight sends a strong message to voters that partisanship still rules in one party. Pat, Newt and Rush will not vote on her confirmation. All they will do is whip the base into a frenzy and implant a searing image of partisanship in the minds of voters, especially the moderates, independents and Hispanics the Republican Party needs to make inroads with. The message to America is clear. The president is trying to be post-partisan; the Republicans are clinging to old ways.

That’s not how to rebuild a party.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com

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