Obama wasn’t lying when he talked about the many Republican-friendly tax cuts included in the stimulus, the many conservative ideas that formed the core of the health-care law and the trillions in GOP-demanded spending cuts that were added to his budget proposals. But McConnell wasn’t lying when he said that Republicans cared more for defeating the president than for anything else — and that “anything else” includes passing policy initiatives they had long supported. After all, you don’t beat Obama by partnering with him on his agenda. You beat Obama by turning him into a polarizing, partisan figure. And you do that by unilaterally denying him bipartisanship.
The president sold himself as the great post-partisan hope, the leader who could bring comity and peacefulness to a town riven by partisanship and rancor. When McConnell refuses to come to bipartisan agreements with Obama, he damages Obama’s brand. More than anyone else, McConnell has been responsible for his failure, and key in demonstrating how little any one leader can do to change the tone in Washington
Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at the Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC and Bloomberg. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system that’s constantly screwing it up. He really likes graphs, and is on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. E-mail him here.
There’s supposed to be a curb on this sort of behavior: If you don’t participate in the legislative process, you don’t get anything out of the process. Here’s McConnell’s most important insight: That’s wrong. Withholding minority-party votes forces the majority party to hand its most moderate members — and the most moderate members of the other party — an effective veto, which drags the legislation substantively to the center, and in the current situation, to the right.
Health-care reform was more conservative than it would have been if more Republicans had been willing to support it. The stimulus was smaller than it would have been if conservative senators had been willing to back the whole in return for concessions on the parts. It turns out that a partisan political strategy results in more bipartisan policy. The opposition can have its cake and eat it, too. That doesn’t leave much reason for it to be bipartisan, of course. But for a minority party that wants to defeat a president who sold himself as a unifier, that’s a plus.
“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell told the Atlantic in January, “because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan.”
McConnell was, of course, correct. More people should have been listening.