Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Viva Bipartisanship!

Barack Obama believes in bipartisanship. He's firmly committed to listening to his political opponents, incorporating their ideas when they make sense, and working with them to find solutions to common problems. Bob Herbert is still very impressed by this. Some people aren't. Many people aren't impressed with this, notably Kos, who is a proud partisan, and can justify his perspective fairly well.

Obama's bipartisanship didn't look all that effective in the debate over the stimulus; all the Republicans in the House voted against it, only three Republicans in the Senate voted for it.

Except that it did, in fact, pass, mostly as Obama wanted it.

There are two levels of Obama's bipartisan commitment. On the tactical, day-to-day level, he invites Republicans senators to hang out in the Oval Office, he visits Capitol Hill, he incorporates their ideas. That's the basic, do-what-it-takes-to-get-things-done level. It's extremely high profile, and attracts a great deal of attention. It's very obvious when no one in the opposition votes for your bill.

On a deeper level, or perhaps on a broader basis (pick your spatial metaphor), Obama's commitment to bipartisanship means that he is the anti-Karl Rove, the opposite of George Bush, who so spectacularly failed to be a uniter, and ended up being a divider. Obama's idea of bipartisanship means that he will not use the power of the presidency to push an agenda that uniquely benefits Democrats. He is a Democrat, and he will advocate Democratic ideas. As Herbert quoted him,

“I’m an eternal optimist,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m a sap.”
The man is from Chicago; he's not a wimp. But he's different from Bush, for example, in his commitment to helping out the broadest possible range of people with the stimulus package. Democrats and Republicans use the same roads. Socialists, libertarians, and moderates all live in houses, have mortgages, and would like to send their kids to college.

Bipartisanship for Obama means that he will not promote divisive issues, the way Rove pushed gay marriage as a wedge issue. Obama is going to have to make decisions that divide people into winners and losers, but he will try to be equitable and fair.

I once read a great anecdote about Bill Clinton. In law school, he took a class on corporate law, but blew it off for almost the entire semester (I have since learned that this is not all that unusual in law school). He walked into the final and aced it. The professor asked him how he did it. Clinton replied that he didn't necessarily understand corporations, but he understands politics, and everybody has to get something.

That's the guiding principle of Obama's bipartisanship: everybody has to get something. He is not motivated by vengeance or revenge. He doesn't want to screw anyone over just because he can, or because they opposed him. He does not believe in retribution.

What Republicans utterly fail to understand is that this is a source of strength for Obama, because it's part of the reason for his popularity with the American people. Reagan had something of the same appeal, although Reagan was more of a partisan than Obama is. Reagan used to say "after 6:00, we're all friends," and apparently he really meant it. That was part of why so many Americans were willing to forgive him his foibles, and why Democrats had so much trouble attacking him. He actually did make an effort to get along with Congressional Democrats, even when he strongly disagreed with them. Or at least that's my memory.

Just about every American understands what it is like to be screwed over by someone more powerful than you, and every American expects it to happen in the political system. But just about every American also recognizes fairness when they see it. Whether or not they will admit that someone is being is, of course, a different question.

Obama believes in bipartisanship for two reasons: One, he actually can listen to his opponents and find common ground with them, and two, he's not afraid of his opponents. No wonder Republicans are so discombobulated by it.

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