Mon, 02 Feb 2009 21:42:36 +0000 – By Lanny DavisAttorney/Former White House Special Counsel
Barack Obama campaigned on change. One of the most fundamental changes he promised was a new politics committed to finding bipartisan solutions whenever possible.
In his first week as president, Mr. Obama has proven he is serious about keeping his promise. But in today's Washington, it really takes more than two to do the bipartisan tango. In fact, it actually will take at least five to make true bipartisanship work.
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First came Mr. Obama, who broke all precedent in his first week by traveling to Capitol Hill to meet with Republican House members to try to win support for his proposed economic-stimulus package.
Then there are four other players who must become willing partners with the president if bipartisan government is to become a reality, rather than an idealistic dream: the House Republicans, the House Democrats, the Senate Republicans and the Senate Democrats.
So far, the most obvious impediment to bipartisan government at a time of severe economic crisis has been the House Republicans.
It is true that after the president's first-week visit to the House Republican caucus, he was courteously, even warmly, received by members with multiple comments about what a "nice guy" Mr. Obama is.
But then what happened?
Not one Republican voted for the stimulus package when it reached the House floor - not even one moderate or moderate-conservative (that is, if there are any left in the House Republican caucus).
That meant the House Republicans wanted and were able to enforce 100 percent partisan, party-enforced discipline to oppose the Obama-sponsored stimulus bill. They achieved this impressive unanimity even after the president added tax cuts he must have hoped would gain some Republican support, although many liberal Democrats, who preferred more infrastructure spending, and "Blue Dog" Democrats, who are budget hawks, were unhappy about those proposals.
Why did all the Republican House members choose to vote in such obvious lockstep?
It is a political mystery.
There may be an understandable explanation in human anatomical language -- as in the "knee-jerk reaction." But it's virtually impossible to explain in political terms, since a majority of Americans, according to all the polls, want bipartisanship in this time of economic crisis and support the need for an economic stimulus and infrastructure package.
Some Republicans argue that the House Democrats bear the blame for the GOP solid opposition. They claim the Democratic House leaders shut them out entirely as the bill was drafted and finalized.
I know what the Democrats will say if this is true: The Republicans excluded Democrats almost entirely from consultations on many important House bills during the 12 years from 1994 to 2006 when Republicans were the majority.
But I am hoping House Democrats will resist the impulse to repeat the "gotcha" cycles of "they did it to us, so let's do it to them" that has plagued our politics since Watergate.
This endless loop of partisan "we won, you lost; it's payback time" attitudes, exhibited by both political parties over the years, is exactly what has alienated so much of the American electorate for such a long time. This is why the Obama message of fundamental change had such resonance and power in his 2008 presidential campaign.
The other two players in Mr. Obama's bipartisan mission, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans, offer greater hope. Perhaps it is because of smaller numbers, or a greater tradition of collegiality, but signs are that the Democratic and Republican senators do have a commanding center - going back to the "Gang of 14" - that can achieve more than 60 or 70 bipartisan votes for Mr. Obama's program if they work together.
In the final analysis, true bipartisan, solutions-focused government will not be achieved unless congressional Democrats and Republicans in both chambers see this moment as an historic opportunity to seek the broad centrist coalition that this country desperately needs at a time of crisis.
The key phrases are "what the country needs" at a time of crisis and "bipartisan solutions" -- which, by definition, must mean a compromise of purist ideological positions on the left and right, resulting in a blend of good liberal ideas with good conservative ideas.
Yes, it is possible that we can all reach a point where the expression "good liberal ideas" is not an oxymoron to conservatives, and vice versa to liberals.
Yes, I still believe in political miracles.
Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006 to 2007. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America." This column also article appeared in The Washington Timeson February 2, 2009.