The Partisanship Trap

By Al Giordano

It's only Week Two of President Obama's term - 207 weeks to go - and some colleagues are already demanding that he revert to the dysfunctional methods of what they call "partisanship" when dealing with Congress.

Josh Marshall - one of the more moderately spoken voices of that tendency - argues:

I hear a lot of talk about whether Obama's governing approach can be 'bipartisan' if a good number of Republicans don't vote for his Stimulus Bill. But that dubious point seems to be obscuring a more obvious and telling reality: the Republican leadership in both houses has decided that it's in their political interest to oppose the Stimulus Bill no matter what.

I don't disagree with the statement of fact - that Republicans will likely oppose the Stimulus - but I also don't think that Obama is on the Hill speaking to House and Senate Republicans under any illusion that he's there to secure their votes for that bill.

Rather, he's setting them up under the glare of the mass media to be seen as the unreasonable party in contrast to what everybody watching him on TV is going to view as reasonable and respectful. In sum, he's using them as props, and turning their weakness - their own frothing desire for "partisanship" - against them.

He emerged from his meeting with House Republicans some minutes ago, broadcast live on Cable News with comments that will certainly make the evening news and tomorrow's newspapers:

...the main message I have is that the statistics every day underscore the urgency of the economic situation.  The American people expect action.  They want us to put together a recovery package that puts people back to work, that creates investments that assure our long-term energy independence, an effective health care system, an education system that works; they want our infrastructure rebuilt, and they want it done wisely, so that we're not wasting taxpayer money.

...the key right now is to make sure that we keep politics to a minimum.  There are some legitimate philosophical differences with parts of my plan that the Republicans have, and I respect that.  In some cases they may just not be as familiar with what's in the package as I would like.  I don't expect a hundred percent agreement from my Republican colleagues, but I do hope that we can all put politics aside and do the American people's business right now.  All right.

The drumbeat for "partisanship" hasn't come only from the right, but also from some parts of the Netroots blogosphere and others that argue against Obama's respectful tone toward the opposition or against any willingness to compromise at all. They argue for less "bipartisanship" and a return to "partisanship," the suggestion being that Obama should ignore the Republicans and ram his agenda items through Democratic majorities in both houses.

There's some cognitive dissonance in that advice, as it comes from some of the same quarters that are, on other days, fully aware that Congressional Democrats and their leaders are no great progressive behemoth to depend on. Reid, Pelosi, and company, are, rather, serial equivocators who, the moment a major issue or conflict is in their hands, talk tough with words but buckle under to the special interests when it comes time to act in deed.

Which is why it's also interesting to read this account, via Politico, of Obama's meeting with House Republicans:

Obama seemed ready for the House Republicans to pounce, reportedly telling the gathered GOP lawmakers: "feel free to whack me over the head because I probably will not compromise on that part [tax cuts]," according to two sources in the room...

Obama's aides cast the visit as an outstretched hand - and it got slapped.

That was the intent all along and it somewhat amazes me that some colleagues haven't seen it for what it is: For a new president with such enormous public popularity to set up Congressional Republicans to be perceived as slapping his "outstretched hand" was a chess move that suckered them into the tar pit of being seen as the obstructionists in Washington, and at that, they're now branded as additionally inactive on "the urgency of the economic situation."

The Politico story had another revealing quote:

"This is a very dangerous political vote for House Republicans, in particular those from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan," said a White House aide familiar with House districts. "Their constituents want them to take action to save the economy, not block progress." 

In other words, Obama's strategy is to set them up for another rout in the 2010 Congressional elections and to hasten, in the meantime, the process by which they wake up and realize their seats are vulnerable. The President doesn't need their votes on the Stimulus (therefore, this maneuver is not about the Stimulus, but more akin to a football team calling a running play to set up a later passing play). The truth is that so many Congressional Democrats are so undependable that Obama will need some Republican votes later on other legislative priorities, particularly in the Senate in order to get 60 votes for "cloture" to allow bills to be voted up or down: On the Employee's Free Choice Act, on Immigration Reform (and now he needs one more to offset the anti-immigrant junior Democratic Senator from New York), on children's health care and much, much more. To get to that point, he has to make individual Republicans feel vulnerable at the ballot box to Democratic challenge. Today's events are speeding that process up.

In the end, Obama's "bipartisanship" is one of the most Machiavellian partisan maneuvers we've seen in Washington in a long while, and I use that description in its most admirable context. The Republicans fell right into the trap today. Progressives that urge Obama to be more "partisan" should pay close attention to how the GOP is getting pwned before falling into the same trap themselves.

Also: At some point I may not be able to resist wading into some related debates going on around the blogosphere and to address some of the nonsense going on over at the children's table. Some bloggers continue to believe that they have standing - without having demonstrable accomplishment to back it up - to declare who is "progressive" and who is not. And I have to chuckle, after my decades of studious participation in authentic social movements, each time they claim to be part of something they call "our movement," to which I'll just say, "you and what army?"

One of them just made a run at the adult's table and got splendidly smacked down. If slapstick makes you laugh, you'll enjoy the replay. I'll just keep the scoreboard: Nate Silver 1, David Sirota 0.

Update: No sooner did that White House aide mention targeting Republicans in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio than this (related?) development:

It may be time to coin the phrase "pulling a Specter," because Sen. Arlen Specter (PA), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, just did it again. After making a huge fuss questioning the independence of Eric Holder, Specter just caved and said he'll support the attorney general nominee.

"I can say with some confidence that there won't be a successful filibuster," Specter told reporters at a press conference gathered to share his thoughts on Holder in advance of tomorrow's Judiciary panel vote on the nominee.

Specter added that the strong recommendations Holder received from former FBI director Louis Freeh and former DoJ No. 2 James Comey were influential in swaying his vote.

"At no time did I challenge Mr. Holder's integrity," the Pennsylvania senator concluded. (But he sure came close, according to Holder himself.) "It was a question of judgment."

Specter faces reelection next year in Pennsylvania.

Watch, listen, and learn!

Update II: Here's video...

Does that look like a man who is being rolled? Or the one who's doing the rolling?

Update III: Poor David Sirota. He became laughingstock over at Daily Kos back in November and now fills the Matt Stoller memorial dunce stool over at Open Left. His peewings were apparently hurt by my observation, above, of the embarrassment he's caused himself in his schoolyard attempt to mix it up this week with the maestro Nate Silver.

Now he's dedicated an entire blog post to upturning his oatmeal at the children's table in a tantrum over me (and also in response to our thoughtful colleague Elliot over at Election Inspection).

My favorite line from the Netroots' resident fussbudget's diatribe is when Sirota calls me out saying:

"you are making very clear that you spend your life frolicking with ponies in a psychedelic fantasyland that most mere mortals never even dreamed existed."

(Translation: the guy from Narco News must be on drugs. Oh well, it's not the first time that a few words from me have stung enough to turn a mediocre faux-progressive into a frothing chemical McCarthyist. Good thing I find it entertaining.)

Now, what do Sirota's three boogeymen du jour - Elliot, Nate, and I - have in common that could be guiding these recent outbursts? Oh, right. We were three of the bloggers (along with the chess master Psifighter37) who throughout 2008, in primary after primary, January, February, March, April, May and June, and up to the general election in November, were predicting the results accurately while Sirota and some others screamed "Obama must do it my way or the sky is going to fall."

My one little mention of him today ("Nate Silver 1, David Sirota 0") apparently upset the guy so much that he couldn't even read between his tears my explanation above about the Machiavellian nature of Obama's moves on Capitol Hill with Congressional Republicans: that Obama is, one, weakening the Republicans in the eyes of their constituents in order to, two, hasten the day when they feel vulnerable before their state and district electorates, and will then have to play ball on future legislative priorities. He translated that to claim that I had argued that Republicans should be "cajoled with candy and niceties." Ha ha. (Since you're reading this here, you already know who, in this conversation, is humping the fantasy pony, or being humped by it.)

But I do thank him for spelling my name right more times than he misspelled it. And I appreciate being called out by such a consistently beautiful loser as Sirota, who has, according to his own Wikipedia promotions, lost far more battles than he's ever won in politics, has never organized or led a successful movement, has no grassroots base behind him, and whose predictions reliably have failed at each step along the way. The guy is a near-perfect barometer, an inverted compass: when Sirota says "heads," you can make a lot of money betting on "tails." I know I do.

Update to the Update: A Coloradan emails:

Ha ha @ Sirota! Remember when I told everyone during the DNC that he's not from our  mountainous neck of the woods? Yeah..this is why. My friends and I have a game each time we run into each other at social gatherings, and that is to count how many times he says "my nationally syndicated column..." He has a real nerve to talk about self-importance. Last I checked, the record was 7 in an hour and a half.

File Under: Rocky Mountain High Horse.

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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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