Hint: It’s Not by Counting Republican Votes

It’s tempting to try to score President Obama’s campaign pledge to end partisan gridlock in Washington by counting the number of Republicans who vote for his high-priority proposals.  No Republican votes for the Obama stimulus package in the House?  A shutout.  (That’s the way, in fact, the new Republican Party chairman gleefully referred to the House vote—a “goose-egg” on the president’s desk.) Three Republican votes in the Senate?  Better—but still, just a field goal.

But keeping score that way is like determining the winner of a football game by comparing the teams’ number of first downs, or giving the W in a baseball game to the team that steals the most bases.  First downs and stolen bases are numbers, all right.  But they’re the wrong numbers.

Obama’s pledge to end partisan gridlock was what differentiated him from the field, and especially from Hillary Clinton, in the Democratic primaries.  Clinton billed herself as a warrior president, a president who would give as good as she got, who could take any punch the Republicans could throw and come back with a better one.  She knew that on the political battlefield, you had to meet force with force, and she mocked what seemed like the gauzy promise of Obama bipartisanship.  “The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect,” she told a Providence audience just a year ago.  “I have no illusions at how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.”

The House votes on the stimulus package seemed to confirm her forebodings.  House Republicans seemed to have played the naïve, inexperienced president for a sucker, accepting his tax-cut olive branches and then stiffing him on the vote.

It was a scenario foretold in the Marx Brothers’ classic Duck Soup.  Groucho Marx plays the prime minister of Freedonia, a country on the brink of war with bordering Sylvania.  At the last minute, a messenger rushes in, informing Groucho that Sylvania’s Ambassador Trentino is on his way on an eleventh-hour bid to avoid war, and urges Groucho to hear Trentino out.  At first, Groucho is hopeful:

I’d be only too happy to meet Ambassador Trentino and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship.  I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit in which it is offered.

Then a darker possibility occurs to him, and his mood changes:

But suppose he doesn’t?  A fine thing that‘ll be.  I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it.  That’ll add a lot to my prestige, won’t it?  Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador!
Who does he think he is, that he can come here and make a sap out of me in front of my people?

Think of it!  I hold out my hand, and that hyena refuses to accept it!

Why, the cheap four-flushing swine! He’ll never get away with it, I tell you!

Many think that Congressional Republicans made just such a sap out of Obama with their almost total rejection of his overtures.  He held out his hand, and they refused to accept it.

But scoring the success of Obama’s bid to end gridlock by how many Republicans vote for his legislation misunderstands both the problem that Obama campaigned against and the solution he offers.

Obama did not, in his campaign, claim that he could make the lamb to lie down with the lion, or conservative Republicans to vote for liberal measures.  The problem was never that conservatives refused to vote for liberal measures or nominees, or that liberals refused to vote for conservative measures or nominees.  Voting for what they believe in, for what they promised their constituents they would vote for, is what members of Congress are supposed to do.  That was never the sickness in the system.

The sickness was not partisan behavior but partisan gridlock, the gridlock that resulted when almost every issue, almost every nominee, was treated as an offense demanding not only opposition, but last-ditch obstruction.  Democrats might see themselves as engaged in a policy debate; to Republicans, it was war.  Innocuous provisions could be represented as revealing insufficient toughness in the face of terrorism, or as affronts to uncompromisable pro-life or pro-gun beliefs.  If any Democrat, at any time in the past, had ever engaged in behavior for which a Republican was being criticized, it was conclusive evidence of hypocrisy, implicating not only Democrats but their fellow travelers in the media.  In the Senate, bills could be filibustered, the way southerners used to filibuster civil rights bills, not because the bills were perceived to threaten a way of life, as civil rights was, but simply because opponents didn’t have the votes to defeat them.   The idea was to prolong and degrade the process with dilatory tactics, and to intimidate opposition with the specter of anger and resentment that was supposed to be smoldering like a volcano just below the surface; better to back off and live than to risk igniting a firestorm.

That was gridlock, and that is what Obama pledged to stop.  He promised to change the Washington way of doing business, the scorched-earth tactics that treated every issue, every vote, as meriting last-ditch opposition and unyielding enmity.

One way that promise might have been kept would have been to include in the package enough Republican solutions, mainly tax cuts, to persuade GOP members of the House that they could in good conscience see their way clear to vote for the measure.  That was never going to happen.  No legislation acceptable to the Democratic majority was going to win the votes of the hard-core conservatives who are all that’s left of House Republicans.  (Nor, for that matter, could any legislation acceptable to the hard-cores win anything approaching a majority of House Democrats.)

But there was another way to change the political environment, a way that worked for Obama in the primaries: not converting bitter-end opponents, but neutralizing them.

Even after Obama’s victories in early primaries and caucuses, the question lingered: What would he do when the Clintons took the gloves off?  How would he respond when they came back hard against negotiating with Ahmadinejad of Iran or against the fact that his vaunted opposition to the war had consisted almost entirely of a single speech while he was state senator?  Would he absorb the first punch, and the second, and the third, fourth and fifth, until he stood exposed as a well-meaning naïf who could never fight back against the Republican slime machine—the machine that had slimed Kerry as an effete, wind-sailing, brie-eating continental; that had slimed Gore as a puffed-up poseur claiming to have invented the Internet; and that had slimed Clinton by setting him up to lie about his dalliances?

Or would Obama fight back, trade Hillary charge for charge, giving as good as he got, but in the process giving up the unsullied luster that was what set him apart from the rest of the Democratic field?

He took neither of those choices.  He neither took nor returned the Clintons’ punches.  Instead, he slipped them, reproving his opponents with a stern demeanor rather than countercharges, painting them as transgressors against the no-negative-campaigning truce that had theretofore characterized the campaign, and making the issue their negative campaigning, not his inexperience and occasional misstatements.  Remember the Clintons’ backtracking from Bill Clinton’s description of Obama’s opposition to the war as a “fairytale”?  Remember their having to back away from their attempt to frame the Obama campaign as being like Jesse Jackson’s, i.e. a protest candidacy by an African American candidate aimed at African American problems and grievances?  Not only was that theme dropped when African American voters made Obama’s cause their own while white voters failed to take the Clintons’ bait, but Bill Clinton’s effectiveness as his wife’s alternating proud-husband and bad-cop surrogate, was all but destroyed.

What Obama understood was that the accomplishable objective was not to win over voters who were unalterably opposed to him or unshakably loyal to his opponent.  The objective was to appeal to those who were open to either him or Clinton, to present himself as a man of reason, of good will, of moderation, who would take those qualities to Washington, not as an alley-fighter and gut-puncher.

It was not an original strategy.  In 2000, George W. Bush employed a moderate tone, combining his natural informality with something called “compassionate conservatism.” He forbore red-meat opposition to abortion, not in the hope of winning over pro-choice stalwarts, but to present himself to suburban moderates as a tolerant leader, opposed to abortion, yes, but sensitive to the feelings of those who might disagree, not a pro-life zealot with whom moderates would be uncomfortable.

Bush carried the strategy into his presidency.  He reached out to Democrats with his support for education reform through No Child Left Behind and, later, for prescription drug coverage and a less punitive approach to immigration reform.  It was win-win.  Either his outreach would succeed by garnering Democratic votes and getting legislation passed, or it would succeed by painting Democrats as partisan obstructionists.

Like Bush, Obama as president has danced with who brung him.  If he attracts Republican support in Congress through social gestures like inviting them to the White House, or by including conservative proposals in legislation he backs—fine.  Necessary legislation gets passed and, as a bonus, the flexibility of the Republicans who cross over casts those who don’t as rigid ideologues and obstructionists.  If he gets only minimal Republican support, or none at all, he may nevertheless undermine the public support Republicans will need to avoid falling behind even further, both now and two years from now when they try to start turning their party’s fortunes around.

Obama has won the first round.  But it’s still early days.  The test will come on bills and nominees that don’t have the head of steam that the fiscal stimulus bill built up.  That is when we’ll find out whether Obama has done to congressional Republicans what he did to Hillary Clinton in the primaries and John McCain in the general election: not beat them down, but neutralize them.


  1. Jay
    February 17th, 2009 | 7:54 am

    The only way the Republican congress agrees with Democratic legislation is if it resembles Republican legislation. I have found through numerous discussions with my Conservative Republican friends that there is no room for compromise. But as you wrote some time ago, the are in their rightful place criticizing Democratic initiatives and polices without a real plan of their own.

  2. Ira H. Klugerman
    February 17th, 2009 | 12:33 pm

    Obama is no longer in a campaign. This moment defines his Presidency. Forget slamming the Republicans, as he was prone to do in his televised speech. To forge bipartisan behavior, a President must stick to a program that he believes is in the nation’s best interest and ignore commenting about his opponents. He has no adversaries in trying to right the ship of state. Using the best advice he can muster from both parties. he must navigate a course and hold to it, no matter what others might agree or disagree. That was the greatness of Lincoln, of TR and FDR. “Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Find a way of doing it.”

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