A major plank of President Obama’s presidential campaign was the promise to “change the atmosphere in Washington.” That meant, in part, to engage in true bipartisanship on policy development. Now true bipartisanship, whether because of desire on both sides or for political necessity, has not been seen since the days of the Reagan/Bush I Presidency. During the latter, the Democrats controlled the Congress and if Reagan/Bush wanted to get anything done, they had to deal with that reality. Of course, being the usual kind of post-Lyndon Johnson-before-Vietnam Democrats, the latter pretty much gave Reagan/Bush what they wanted. And when the latter went around the Congress, as they did with Iran-Contra secret trading Ollie North style and aid to the Nicaraguan rebels (both illegal acts), Democrats in Congress let them get away with it. The last era of true bipartisanship on foreign policy was during the Cold War, when both parties were fully supportive of what came to be the last 45 years of the 75 Years War on the Soviet Union.
Bipartisanship of any kind ended when Newt Gingrich took over the House of Representatives in 1994 and openly declared it to be at an end. President Clinton vainly made attempts at continuing it. He thought, in a totally deluded fashion, that the Gingrichites would deal with him as the predecessor Democratic Congresses dealt with Reagan/Bush. But of course, Gingrich and his clones (such as Joe Scarborough) and his successor as the central Republican Congressional power figure, Tom DeLay, had no intention of conducting any kind of bipartisan government, and made it very clear, in words and deeds. Various Republican Senatorial Majority Leaders, such as Bob Dole and Bill Frist, made it quite clear that they were following the same non-bipartisan policy, but the most vocal leaders of it were Gingrich, DeLay, and their ilk in the House.
Of course, with the advent of Bush II and the Georgites, bipartisanship was completely dead even on paper, for the first six years of his Presidency. Even during the brief periods when the Democrats controlled the Senate, Tom Daschle (whose withdrawal from HHS Secretary is not lamented in this corner) gave Bush everything he wanted without getting anything in return. For example, on the first big Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, the Democrats went into the contest giving Bush about one-half of what he wanted, before anything had happened. They ended up giving him everything he wanted, and we are now dealing with the huge detritus pile of that event. And then there were the War on Iraq, and money for continuing it; warrantless wiretapping; the Patriot and Military Commission Acts; et al. There was no bipartisanship from the Republican side and the Democrats eventually just gave way, for the most part just going along.
But that wasn’t true bipartisanship. That was just a very weak Congressional Democratic Party, fueled by a very reactionary Democratic Leadership Council political philosophy, being run over by the Georgite/Republican steamroller. So, here comes President Obama, who campaigned on “changing the ways of Washington” and “working across the aisle.” I think that he really meant it. That he really thought that goodwill, and a Democrat in the White House, with large majorities in both Houses (those true majorities being distorted of course by the Filibuster Rule that should be discarded at the earliest possible time, and can be by a simple majority vote), could really “work with” the Republicans.
I think President Obama really thought this would be possible, despite the history of Republican strategy and tactics since they took over Congress in 1994. The “atmosphere in Washington” is not the product of activities on both sides. It’s the product of the activities of one side. But the President either saw it differently, or wanted to see it differently, or thought that with his truly large margin of victory and the Democratic majorities in the Congress, he could change it, whatever it really is.
He says that he has not yet given up. However, I believe he has learned very quickly that this is not to be the case, and that he is only trying to figure out how to best deal with the political reality of virtually complete Republican intransigence. He is being roundly criticized from the other side for “not being patient,” “for giving up and becoming partisan” at the drop of a uniform Republican vote in the House against any stimulus package, even though bunches of stuff were given away before the vote there. And oh that evil Speaker Pelosi. Well! The President is moving quickly. It will be interesting to see how he proceeds at this point. But he is starting to recognize that he has an enemy, not just an opponent, here. How much he understands just what the Republicans really want remains to be seen. But the sooner he learns that, the better off both his Administration and the nation will be.
What do the Republicans truly want? They are making it very clear (and their titular leader Rush Limbaugh says it right out loud) that they want him to fail in rescuing the nation from the current recession/Depression. In fact, they would like it get much deeper. For if he is even moderately successful, the Republicans will be in the political wilderness for 20 years. As for the tax cut thing, Republicans will say that that is the best way to stimulate the economy. But except for members such as Jim “ban gay teachers from the classroom” DeMint, who obviously reads nothing, they read the same data everyone else does. They know that direct spending is a much better way to stimulate the economy. But they push the idea anyway, for two reasons.
First, if the stimulus package succeeds to some extent despite the level of ineffective tax cuts in it, they will claim a share the credit for its success. If, as is much more likely, in part because of the level of tax cuts in it, the package fails, they will blame that outcome entirely on Obama. They will say that the reason for the failure was not that there were too many tax cuts, but rather too few.
Second, the Republicans put a particularly heavy larding of tax cuts in the Senate bill. This in the face of all the data, as well as the experience of the last eight Republican years, showing that they don’t work. One can conclude only that the tactic was most likely designed to be a poison pill, to increase the chances of failure for what they will call the “Obama Stimulus Package,” regardless of its design.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. He has also published numerous articles and reviews in both the academic and the lay literature on health policy, health and wellness, and athletics. On politics Dr. Jonas is a www.TPJmagazine.us Contributing Author; a regular Columnist for the webmagazine Buzz Flash; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC; a regular contributor to Thomas Paine’s Corner; and a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad.