Premature Bipartisan Proclamations

By Mike Dorf

It is tempting to view the modest but real accomplishments of the lame-duck session of Congress as heralding a new era of bipartisanship.  And sure enough, both center-right and center-left pundits (e.g., Ross Douthat and Thomas Friedman of the Times) have recently succumbed to just that temptation--with each adding that it's easier to compromise on cutting taxes and spending money than on raising taxes or cutting budgets.  I think this view misreads the core dynamic at work in the lame-duck session.

Given the obvious parallel between the mid-term elections of 1994 and 2010, the Obama White House has been looking to Bill Clinton's example as a roadmap to governing and to winning re-election in 2012.  It is hard to know exactly what aspects of the Clinton playbook the Administration will borrow, just as it is hard to know to what extent the Republican leadership will deviate from the quite unsuccessful Gingrichian approach.  But here's an important point to keep in mind amidst all of the triangulating, calculated confrontations, and compromising: The Republicans' most aggressive moves against President Clinton occurred after his 1996 re-election, at a point at which the failure of the Gingrich strategy was already obvious.  What is the evidence that Republicans have reassessed?

One possible answer is that John Boehner is not Newt Gingrich.  Quite the contrary, Boehner was one of a small number of Republicans who tried to oust Gingrich from the Speaker's chair in 1997, having seen how poorly his style had played.  Boehner undoubtedly believes that he long ago absorbed the lessons of the Clinton/Gingrich confrontation and will not repeat Gingrich's errors in dealing with Obama.

Perhaps, but color me skeptical.  For one thing, although Boehner is clearly part of the Republican establishment, he and the GOP more broadly cannot afford to alienate the incoming Tea Partiers, for whom compromise with Democrats is largely anathema.  For another thing, even the pre-Tea Party GOP was strongly inclined towards confrontation with--or at least rejection of nearly everything favored by--Obama.  They didn't have the numbers in the House to make a difference but in the Senate they played their weak hand very effectively, albeit cynically: voting no on cloture, then accusing Democrats of not accomplishing anything despite their majority status.

So, what do we make of the breakdown of that strategy during the lame-duck session?  To my mind, it is probably not a harbinger of greater bipartisanship but more likely the opposite: The remaining GOP moderates saw the lame-duck session as their last chance to enact desirable measures before the arrival of a very conservative Congress with virtually no inclination towards bipartisanship.