Obama’s ‘bipartisan’ bait

Ohio Rep. John Ashbrook, one of the era’s most admired conservative leaders, challenged then-President Richard Nixon in the 1972 New Hampshire primary. We all knew Ashbrook had little chance of winning even double-digit support against a president who was riding high in the polls at the time.

Given the reality of what was likely to happen on Election Day, I asked, “Why are you doing this?” I’ll never forget Ashbrook’s reply. He looked me calmly in the eye and said, “I’m doing it because someday we’re going to want to be able to say we weren’t part of this.”

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He had a point. I suspect it’s the same point House Republicans had in mind when they voted unanimously against President Obama’s stimulus package last week.

President Obama’s team is apparently convinced that if we just spend enough money on traditional Democratic pet projects, we can work our way out of our national economic mess — and they seem inordinately focused on getting Republican as well as Democratic fingerprints on their “plan.”

They tell us we are in a “post-partisan,” “trans-partisan” or at least “bipartisan” age in which all good Americans, regardless of party and ideology, act together for the common good. That sounds great, but much of it is hooey.

What they really want is for people who disagree with them to work for and to endorse liberal “solutions” to today’s problems. Senate and House Republicans have witnessed this up close as Obama has “reached out” to them, sat with them, phoned them and sought their “input.” In the end, their ideas have been almost universally rejected out of hand by a smiling president who seems convinced that his approach alone has merit.

Thus, the president has reminded congressional leaders to remember that he and his ideas prevailed in November. Obama has suggested that to get along, Republicans would do well to tune out critics like Rush Limbaugh and to concentrate on what he needs from them.

What the president actually needs is cover. He had the votes in the House to pass his bloated stimulus bill, but looked for GOP votes so he could claim bipartisan support. When no Republican supported his bill, Obama suggested that Republicans have learned nothing from defeat and remain as obstructionist and partisan as ever.

Without debating which party has been more obstructionist over the last decade, it is worthwhile to examine just when an elected representative ought to break with his or her party on policy.

Too many elected officials operate with one finger to the wind and are hesitant to oppose presidents riding as high in the polls as Obama is now. Under such circumstances, it is often relatively easy for a president to pry a few votes away from the opposition.

That’s what Obama tried. The effort failed not because of the iron-handed leadership of House Republicans, but because Republicans are far from convinced that the administration’s program will work and fear that, in the long run, this bill could do far more harm than good. If House Republicans were convinced that what Obama wants is right and will work, they would have been justified in breaking ranks and would arguably have had a moral obligation to support the “stimulus” bill.

That was not the case in the House. Republicans realize that if Obama is right, everything they have believed has to be wrong. It is always possible that one is wrong, but it is unlikely that policy that has failed so miserably in the past will work now or that the “change” Obama brought with him includes a change in the basic laws of economics. The Republicans, therefore, stood in opposition to the president on this important vote not out of partisan petulance, but because they actually believe something and are willing to stand up for those beliefs.

Viewed from this perspective, House Republicans should be cheered rather than jeered. They accept whatever political heat the president can focus on them for refusing to go along with programs that are popular today, but may turn out to be far less popular tomorrow if they don’t work, will result in higher taxes and are likely to kick off a Jimmy Carter-like round of stagflation in two or three years.

If that happens, House Republicans, to a man, will be able to say they weren’t a part of it.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.