Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Relentless Bipartisanship

By Mike Dorf

Yesterday the President committed himself to "a sense of purpose that transcends petty politics.” Who could be against that? To be for petty politics one would have to be, well, petty.

I'm not against compromise. I also agree with President Obama's stated concern that compromise doesn't mean that he simply caves into whatever the Republicans want. As he put it, "I'm willing to move off some of the preferences of my party in order to meet them halfway, but there's got to be some give from their side as well." To be sure, in my view, much of what the Dems are proposing is already a compromise of preferences of the core of the Democratic Party--e.g., the unwillingness to propose single payer on health care. But even putting that criticism aside, I wonder whether the President isn't making a fundamental miscalculation here in assuming that the Republicans actually care about their own policy preferences rather than simply obstructing.

Given the current dynamic, Republican obstructionism is win-win: It prevents the Democrats from accomplishing anything but because only a quarter of the public realize that Senate Dems can't do anything without 60 votes, Dems will get blamed for Congressional failure, leading to Republican electoral victories. Accordingly, Republican insistence on getting everything they want is not designed to get everything they want in the form of legislation but to win seats in Congress.

I have a hard time believing that the White House doesn't understand this logic, which leads me to one of two possibilities: 1) Obama is so temperamentally inclined towards compromise and bipartisanship and compromise that he can't help himself; or 2) The offer of compromise is designed simply to smoke out and expose the Republicans as obstructionist.

Of course, even if 2) is correct, the tactic could fail. Exposing obstructionism only works if the public are paying sufficient attention, and the 75% of Americans who don't know the filibuster rule are probably unlikely to learn its finer points as a result of Obama's arguments, no matter how effective. Compounding the difficulty is the apparent unwillingness of the Democratic Senate leadership to hold the Republicans' feet to the fire, and force them to vote against cloture repeatedly, a frustration explained by Paul in the post preceding this one (and dissected by readers and myself in the comments).

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