On Bipartisanship

Briefly: It’s a load of bull.

Less briefly: “Bipartisanship” is a feel-good election-y term that should not, and cannot, be the way President Obama gets things done in Washington. Let me offer some thoughts on the matter. 

First off, there’s now no incentive for most of the Republican Party to cooperate with Obama, especially in the House of Representatives. Though there’s no real need to make nice with House Republicans; I’m pretty sure they’ve been reduced to a breakfast nook off in the corner that can seat the entire Republican caucus. The Republican Party is, in a very real sense, a rump party; it’s been stripped of nearly everyone politically vulnerable in their districts and tends to represent members from the reddest states and districts there are. It hasn’t shrunk as far as it theoretically could; there’s actually even more room for it to fall in the Senate, unless Obama makes a hash of his first year. But it’s almost at a minimum.   

So the logical political move for the Republicans to make is, in fact, to go into full-on obstructionist mode, because otherwise they (especially in the House) may fall to a primary challenger tackling them from the right. In turn, the Republican leadership is pretty much compelled to go after Obama as hard as they can and hope that he messes something up; as the Democrats discovered during 2001-2005, there’s little electoral reward in being a watered-down version of the other party. 

There is, however, one exception: there are now a number of Republicans senators from states that Obama won (Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, etc.). They should be easy enough to slap into line for a filibuster-killing vote on anything sufficiently important, provided Obama maintains high approval ratings.  It shouldn’t be difficult to sit down with Olympia Snowe and gently point out that the desires of her constituency and the desires of the Republican Party leadership diverge substantially. A Republican from Maine or Pennsylvania would not want to be the one responsible for killing health-care reform. So on anything of great enough importance, it shouldn’t be incredibly difficult to gather together enough Republicans not only to kill a filibuster (if Begich wins, only two!) but, maybe, even hedge against wobbly Democrats from North Dakota or Nebraska. 

That’s bipartisanship I can believe in.  The important thing to remember is that it’s not feel-goody come-togetherism (though that’s how Obama will attempt to make it look) but balls-to-the-wall playing-for-keeps. You know, the way Republicans roll. As a sidebar, putting controversial moves out there will probably divide the Republicans as well; every potential leader (Palin, Romney, Jindal, Huckabee, etc.) will need to go on record about his actions, which will push the leadership further right and hopefully further alienate moderate Republicans and independents from the party.  If Obama can govern well, he’ll be playing hardball politics well at the same time. 

It also dictates an optimal strategy for Obama: ram everything in as soon as possible, while he still has a popular mandate. He’s currently claiming that’s not what he’s going to do, but that’s exactly what he would say, isn’t it? You can’t predict your approval ratings a year from now, and so he needs to make the best possible use of his leverage as soon as possible. Not only is that the optimal strategy for him, it’s also the way I think he’s going to act the minute he takes office. As well he should. 

Now, whether he’s going to do everything he should and needs to do: That’s another question.

-Alex Copulsky, Books & Arts Editor

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