I’ve argued for a long time that bipartisanship is such a nebulous word that it has little meaning. Instead, it’s connotations make it a powerful political tool when used correctly.
In my thinking, the effective use of the word "bipartisan" has two parts. One part involves reaching out to the other party verbally, and one involves passing your agenda. Let me explain.
The word "bipartisan" is held is such esteem by beltway types, it becomes a useful word for a President to use to disarm the their opposition. If a President expresses the desire to work with the opposite party, while still holding strong verbally on their positions, the opposition part is put in an awkward place. They can ignore the entreaties, or they can start a negotiation on unfavorable terms.
Both President Obama and President George W. Bush did (and are doing) this first part, the verbal part.
Back in 2001, Bush made lots of noises about reaching out to Democrats on his tax cuts for the rich. His first State of the Union speech was full of bipartisan entreaties and images or working "together," and he went on a public relations tour around the country to build support for his proposal while at the same time speaking to Democrats directly.
President Obama has recently started doing similar things. His State of the Union speech had similar entreaties for both parties to work together. And his recent question-and-answer session with House Republicans (which is really worth a watch in full) is a perfect example of this tactic. Obama has a dialogue and appears reasonable, but fiercely defends his views, especially on the economic recovery package. He needs to do much more of this – incessantly.
That’s part one. It puts the opposition part on the defensive, giving them a choice to either oppose any proposals by the administration outright, or start a negotiation on unfavorable terms. So far, Republicans in Congress have chosen to oppose. And it’s easy to see why they have and will continue to make that choice. Where Bush pushed through his agenda whether Democrats were on board or not, Obama hasn’t done the same.
Despite the bipartisan rhetoric, Bush pushed through both his 2001 tax cuts and his 2003 tax cuts using reconciliation because he couldn’t get enough bipartisan support to pass them under cloture rules. He steamrolled the Democratic opposition even as he was talking about reaching out and working together. Eventually, seeing that complete opposition to Bush’s agenda wasn’t going to stop the legislation from passing, Democrats decided to work with Bush, and helped him pass such monstrosities as the Patriot Act and numerous budgets that brought down our economy.
President Obama, on the other hand, has reached out to Republicans, but has so far not pushed through his agenda despite their opposition. Instead, he’s been forced to do things with crucial Republican votes – the economic recover package is the perfect example – which puts him in a weak negotiating position and gives Republican far more power than they should have, given the 2008 election results. Without that second piece – pushing the agenda through no matter what – Obama doesn’t force Republicans to pay a political price for their opposition, and so it continues.
Obama needs to start employing the second piece of the bipartisan puzzle. He can talk up bipartisanship all he wants, but he must push through his agenda no matter the vote counts. If he does, Republicans might start behaving like Democrats under most of Bush’s reign – lapdogs of the ruling party. And if Republicans don’t start voting with Democrats because the bully pulpit demands it, no matter. Obama’s still pushing through his agenda and winning points with voters for delivering on his campaign promises.
Bipartisanship, used correctly, can be a win-win. But only if Obama is willing to follow through. If he’s not, it’s a lose-lose.