GOP Doubts, Fears 'Post-Partisan' Obama

Barack Obama delivered a speech in Lebanon, N.H. Monday in which he countered Hillary Clinton's criticism that his message gives voters false hope. The Post's Shailagh Murray reports.Video by Francine Uenuma/
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

Exploiting a deep well of voter revulsion over partisan gridlock in Washington, Sen. Barack Obama is promising to do something that has not been done in modern U.S. politics: unite a coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents behind an agenda of sweeping change.

But in pitching himself as a "post-partisan" politician, Obama (D-Ill.) is only the latest in a string of presidential candidates promising to remake Washington into a city that sings in unison. George W. Bush was to be a uniter, not a divider. Bill Clinton was going to put people first. Even Richard M. Nixon, on the day after the 1968 election, invoked a sign he had seen during the campaign that said, "Bring Us Together," and said that was the goal of his administration.

Washington, however, has a way of consigning such rhetorical hopes to the partisan waste bin.

"Words are not actions," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday night during a Democratic debate in New Hampshire, as she called for a "reality brake" on her rivals' rhetoric. "As beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action."

"He believes he's a game-changer, but I don't believe the game has changed," said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, dismissing Obama's transformational pledges as naive. "It's captivating. It's intoxicating, but it's not going to last."

In Washington, bipartisanship for decades has been synonymous with compromise and incrementalism. When it has worked, both parties have sacrificed some elements of ideology for modest steps forward. The Clinton White House could not win passage of universal health care, so it settled for a federal-state partnership to insure the children of the working poor. The Republican "revolutionaries" of 1994 could not abolish a Cabinet agency, such as the Education Department, so they settled for slowing the growth rate of Medicare and abolishing Congress's Office of Technology Assessment.

Obama is promising something very different, what skeptics call an oxymoron: sweeping bipartisan change.

"I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes, not incremental changes, not small changes," Obama said Saturday night. "I think that there are a whole host of Republicans, and certainly independents, who have lost trust in their government, who don't believe anybody is listening to them, who are staggering under rising costs of health care, college education, don't believe what politicians say. And we can draw those independents and some Republicans into a working coalition, a working majority for change."

Republicans in Washington view Obama's "post-partisan" political appeal with a mixture of skepticism and fear. They are skeptical, they say, because the first-term senator's thin record has shown virtually no sign of bipartisanship. They are fearful because his appeal just might work.

"It's clear he is a phenomenon," said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a conservative scrapper who revels in Washington's partisan warfare. "He will use style and grace to achieve liberal goals, which is absolutely politically brilliant but intellectually dishonest."

"Any new president is going to have a honeymoon period, and with his communication skills and the foundation that he appears to be wanting to lay -- 'Look, I'm above partisanship; I want to be everybody's president' -- I'm concerned he could push through some policy things that I fundamentally disagree with," said Rep. Jim McCrery (La.), the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Liberals have their own trepidations about a candidate who exudes an air of compromise, even if he doesn't necessarily propose it. "I like my Democrats a bit more hard-edged, at least at this moment in time," read one posting on the liberal Web site DailyKos yesterday. "I never got over the stolen election of 2000 and I don't think I ever will. I was hoping for someone, as a candidate, who conveyed that they understood why that matters."

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