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Partisan Realities

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

We might as well start with Judd Gregg because, in a way, he is at the heart of the problem. The first time I met him was in New Hampshire, during the 2000 Republican primary, when he came into the kitchen of a high school to tell me and another journalist that what we had just heard George W. Bush say on the stump he did not actually say. This man, I thought, has the heart of a wingman.

Barack Obama, as we all know, thought that Gregg had the heart of a political switch-hitter -- a perfect Republican nonentity who could be, in the great cause of bipartisanship, his secretary of commerce. Gregg accepted and then, in a moment of blinding insight, realized that his integrity was at stake and that he could be supine no more. After numerous news cycles -- the new standard for measuring time -- he turned Obama down. He was, after all, the man I had met in the kitchen.

Gregg's turnabout was supposedly an embarrassment for the new Obama administration -- and I suppose it was. But it also was a moment of realism, of clarity, of an antidotal repudiation to all the gauzy talk about partisanship -- about how it is always pernicious and usually silly: games for the sake of games. What Gregg showed was that ideology matters, ideas count, beliefs divide -- and legitimately so -- and that he could go only so far and no further. He decided to be true to himself.

Something of the same has prevailed since the inauguration. Congressional Republicans have made a stand on the stimulus package, just as they did on the original bank bailout when they refused to accommodate a president of their own party, George W. Bush. These Republicans are as wrong as wrong can be, and history, I am sure, will mock them, but they were not elected by history, and they are impervious to mockery from the likes of me. They come from conservative districts, and they are voting as their people want them to. That's partisanship. It is also democracy.

The desire to think that political differences are manufactured and can be sweet-smiled into consensus is touching but unrealistic. Obama has learned that lesson in recent weeks, and not much damage has been done. In foreign affairs, it may be a different matter. The Iranians or the North Koreans or even certain Islamic militants are not mere Republicans with odd accents. Their differences, their ideologies, are deeply rooted and often grounded in culture.

I happen to think that Obama's willingness to talk to anyone is a good thing. It is downright bracing to learn in James Mann's forthcoming and engrossing book on the end of the Cold War, "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan," that some of the people who are warning Obama about putting too much emphasis on tone once had the same warnings for Ronald Reagan about Mikhail Gorbachev. You'll be relieved to know that the experience has not left them humbled.

Reality is real. No amount of lofty rhetoric is going to change the way members of Congress are elected. Most of them come from exquisitely gerrymandered districts created by computers that could, if good taste allowed, part the marital bed, separating husband from wife if they were of different political parties. This system created districts that are frequently reliably liberal or conservative. The computer has deleted the middle.

Rhetoric about lobbyists is equally detached from reality. In the first place, not all lobbyists are bad or venal or wear Gucci loafers. Second, some of them offer a valuable service. They have constituencies that ought to be heard. But, last, the reason lobbyists have arrived at positions of supreme influence in Washington is that they provide campaign funds. As long as the American people tolerate a system where members of Congress have to grovel on a routine basis for campaign funds, lobbyists will remain inordinately influential. Change the system and lobbyists will go back to getting bad tables in Washington restaurants.

Little to none of any of this structural change has been attempted by Obama -- yet. He can ban lobbyists from the White House, tattoo an "L" on their foreheads, deprive them of their constitutional rights or worse, Lincoln Town Cars, and congressmen will still welcome them into their offices. It is the same with all this wailing about partisanship. It is a product of the system as we engineered it and tolerate it. As Obama has recently learned, the more he only talks about change, the more things remain the same.

cohenr@washpost.com

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