Undermining his Own Mandate for the Sake of Bipartisanship
The stimulus package is consistently being attacked because not enough Republicans support it. The fact that the bill received no Republican votes in the House, and "only" three Republicans support the Senate version, is sufficient to conclude that it fails Obama’s objective of being "bipartisan."
We’ll overlook for the moment that two years ago, any bill Joe Lieberman voted for was considered "bipartisan." When Obama sketched out the goals for the stimulus package in early January, he started negotiating with himself by offering "huge tax cuts" as "a way to defuse conservative criticism and enlist Republican support."
But the biggest ground he gave up to the Republicans was control of the primary objective he set for the bill, that it have "bipartisan" support. As one veteran DC political observer notes:
Rule one is that you never empower your opponents to control your victory, and once Obama said "80 votes" or "bipartisan" was the goal, he gave the Republicans the sole ability to determine success or failure — because the Republicans are the only ones who can determine whether something is going to be "bipartisan" or not. He put a gun in the hand of every Republican who wanted to take a shot at the bill, and they’re firing away.
Roosevelt had the New Deal, Kennedy had the New Frontier, Johnson had the Great Society, Newt Gingrich had the Contract With America, and Obama has…the stimulus plan. An abstract goal with fungible components that values process above all else.
Americans want jobs, and had the White House team in charge of presenting the bill to the public defined it as a "put America to work" bill and set a standard for measuring bipartisanship — i.e., how successfully each side worked toward creating jobs — Republicans who cried that their ideas weren’t being respected would have been forced to explain how those ideas met that goal.
We could have all laughed together at John Kyl’s ridiculous assertion that "nobody thinks tax cuts are going to do it all" when that’s expressly what the Republican House plan did. We could have laughed even harder as economists ripped apart the claim that tax cuts alone would create 6 million jobs and it would have provided the opportunity to expose the fundamental flaw in the GOP’s belief that tax cuts are the answer to any question. Instead, we’re all focusing on the fact that John Cornyn isn’t happy, because the message that came out of the White House is that he needs to be.
The administration assumed that Obama’s overwhelming popularity, combined with a rapidly worsening economic crisis and a welcome mat for the GOP would be enough to push Republicans into a collaborative mode. It wasn’t. They belatedly began calling the act the Economic Recovery Act, but it never caught on. The White House hailed the Nelson/Collins compromise because it creates "jobs jobs jobs," yet Krugman and others maintain that the changes they made significantly reduced job creation, with estimates ranging between 600,000 and 1.25 million jobs over the next two years. When Larry Summers was confronted with that charge on This Week he would not dispute it. Apologists like Claire McCaskill are left to tilt at straw men.
When you factor in a 2:1 advantage for the Republicans in terms of TV face time, it’s clear that they already have a leg up in controlling the terms of this debate. The media is not pressing them about GOP governors unhappy about the aid to states that Susan Collins just hacked out of the bill, or pointing out that Senate Republicans who say this bill is "just too big" had no problem voting for George Bush’s $1.35 trillion in tax cuts in 2001. They didn’t need to be told that the ultimate good was to make John Cornyn happy, especially when John Cornyn has a vested interest in being unhappy.
If this becomes the template for all future sausage making between the White House and the Hill, progressive interests will continue to be offered up in sacrifice every time the Republicans decide they don’t like something so the administration can appear to "rise above it all." And rather than being forced to defend their propositions, dithering "centrists" will continue to be patted on the head for pitching public temper tantrums, holding the Senate hostage and parading before the cameras like a bunch of peacocks until their egos are suitably stroked.
There is no inherent value in bipartisanship, it’s the means to an end. If the administration doesn’t define what that "end" is and gives the Republicans the power to determine success or failure by a simple refusal to participate, they will continue to do so.