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Reaching across the aisle

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; 9:26 AM

It was a fleeting glimpse of how a Democratic president and Republican lawmakers who have been smacking one another around might actually find some common ground.

I'm not saying they will -- rabid partisanship is pretty well baked into the culture here -- but the remarkably civil conversation Friday was encouraging. In fact, Obama has accepted a similar invitation from Senate Republicans, although Mitch McConnell told me on Sunday that they usually do these things behind closed doors.

The White House pushed hard for the cameras in Baltimore, and overcame the resistance of House Republicans. The president had a visual advantage -- the only live cameras were trained on him the whole time -- but both sides made their points.

Why is this unlikely to lead to much in the way of compromise legislation, especially when the president has incorporated some GOP ideas? In short, most Republicans believe it's better politics to deny Obama a win on any important issue than to pass bills in which each side gives up some of what it wants. The clearest evidence of this came when seven GOP senators flipped on their own proposal to create a deficit-reduction commission rather than see it pass.

Now this may be smart politics. With the Democrats controlling everything, they bear most of the blame if nothing gets done, the administration's 'party of no' rhetoric notwithstanding.

But at some point, will the public also come to believe that the Republicans are being obstructionist? In some ways the press is easier on the minority party, precisely because it has little power.

They have every right to oppose a big health-care plan and other initiatives they see as government run amok. But Obama has also proposed tax cuts for small business, offshore oil drilling and building nuclear power plants. Is there no possibility of movement on these issues?

The Republicans complain loudly about the burgeoning deficit (and indeed, a $1.3 trillion deficit is a bit scary). But leaving aside the big spending of the Bush years, how can they also howl when Obama proposed to cut Medicare spending, when everyone knows that entitlement reform is badly needed? It's a role reversal from the Gingrich days, when Democratic walloped the GOP for pushing to rein in the growth of Medicare.

When was the last time Congress managed to tackle a major national problem? Bill Clinton and the Republicans reformed welfare in 1996 and balanced the budget in 1997. Since then, attempts to fix Social Security, illegal immigration, energy dependence and now health care have faltered. No wonder people are fed up with Washington.

At 538, Nate Silver says the Democrats need a better story to tell:

"In contrast to the vapid media narrative about the 'perpetual campaign', the Democrats have perhaps not been sensitive enough to how their messaging might play with the sort of mainstream voters who might read a newspaper or turn on CNN once or twice a month, but not more often, or who consume news from only one or two sources, but not others -- descriptions that apply to most of the people that will turn out to vote in November. . . .

"All Democrats need to realize, meanwhile, that sometimes the message isn't going to sink in until the sixth or seventh time that you repeat it. Before Tuesday's State of the Union, for instance, the White House had almost literally never mentioned that the stimulus contained a huge tax cut -- they shouldn't expect the public to believe it any more than Warner Brothers should expect a ton of people to go out and see their new movie if they only begin advertising it 48 hours beforehand.

"Rather, the Democrats need to figure out what their November messages are now and begin planting seeds for them now. You want to run on Republican obstructionism? Well then, don't neglect the golden opportunities that the Republicans are providing you with today, such as when they voted unanimously in the Senate against re-imposing pay-go rules or unanimously in the House against a very centrist financial regulation package. How many people know that House Republicans voted 174-0 against a jobs bill? It's probably not even 20 percent or 30 percent -- more like 2 or 3 percent, at best."

True, but the White House has a pretty big megaphone.

Andrew Sullivan says the problem is the size of the task, not the storytelling:

"The core narrative of Obama's promise and candidacy remains what it always was, in my view. He's struggling against ideology to enact pragmatic reform. This reform will be more liberal than conservative -- but that's surely because the conservatism of the past two decades has run aground.

"You're not going to tackle the debt if you refuse to cut entitlements and defense and want to keep cutting taxes. You are not going to end the cruelties of our current healthcare system by tax credits that don't begin to cover the cost of soaring premiums. You're not going to give people with pre-existing conditions access to health insurance unless you have some kind of mandate or subsidies big enough to get more people into the system. You're not going to tackle climate change by denying it is even happening. You're not going to defang al Qaeda by giving it recruitment tools like Gitmo and Bagram.

"I wish there were a reformist conservatism out there that began to grapple with its past failures. But the response to defeat has been to ratchet up the abstract ideological construct even more."

It's the deficit, stupid

The meta-narrative in yesterday's budget, based on the media coverage, is that we're drowning in red ink. Conservatives are pouncing on the huge numbers, as we see from Cato's Chris Edwards in the National Review:

"Obama comes into office and turns out to be Bush on steroids with respect to federal spending. Obama is calling for spending $3.83 trillion in 2011, or $1.1 trillion more than the federal budget nine years ago had promised. That's a 41 percent forecasting error.

"The lesson from all this is that an administration's promised spending beyond the first year is meaningless. Obama is proposing a freeze on a very small part of the budget, for example, but his budget plan next year will likely find reasons to break that promise. It scares the hell out of me that federal spending down the road could be 41 percent higher than even the huge increases projected by Obama. But that seems to be where we are headed unless we put in place laws or constitutional amendments to really clamp down on the spend-happy politicians of both parties."

But Americablog dissents from the hand-wringing:

"We're going to hear a lot of whining and complaining from the Republicans over Obama's budget. They're really upset because two of the GOP's most important constituencies, the wealthy and the banks, are considered losers in Obama's budget."

Here's the L.A. Times take: "President Obama's budget, formally unveiled Monday to set federal spending priorities, also bolsters a goal of his party for the 2010 elections: Show voters that the president is trying to persuade Republicans to share responsibility for governing the country, but that Republicans are turning him away.

"The budget plan invites Republicans to join him on a bipartisan commission to cut the deficit -- a concept that the GOP has backed in prior years. It includes tax cuts for small businesses long-championed by the GOP. It proposes a domestic spending freeze that infuriates many liberal Democrats."

Health diagnosis

I was struck when Robert Gibbs said on CNN Sunday that we are one House vote away from getting health-care reform. I thought the prospects of House Democrats simply adopting the Senate bill were really fading. But administration officials have privately been pushing this argument, offered by the New Republic's Jonathan Chait:

"Democrats have already paid whatever political price they'll pay, having voted through a bill in both houses. They've already done the hardest part by far, which is overcome a Senate filibuster. All that remains is getting 218 votes in the House to pass the Senate bill and 50 votes in the Senate to fix it, mostly with popular changes. The big picture view is that the Democrats have a massive incentive to get this done, and the procedural road to accomplish that has not gotten any more difficult. Generally, though not always, politicians can grasp their political self-interest.

"Second, the news coverage has mostly been ignoring the fundamentals, and instead has revolved around ground-level reporting in Congress. This presents a pretty unhappy picture: The House and Senate distrust each other, everybody's freaked out, various members of Congress are spouting off. This is an important part of the picture. But it isn't the whole picture. Members of Congress have an incentive to hold out and express their skepticism -- it maximizes their bargaining leverage, and protects them in case of failure."

Leverage against whom? At this point the House can either pass the bill or not pass the bill.

The Edwards myth

The Andrew Young book has painted John Edwards as an even more repulsive figure than we thought, and Tina Brown is appropriately appalled:

"Andrew Young's account of his decade as John Edwards's body man, beard, and [excrement]-eating courtier is a mesmerizing insight not only into the rotten nature of his hero but the corruption of the culture that allowed a man as devoid of authenticity as John Edwards to flourish for so long, even to the point of getting a decent shot at the White House.

"Young and his hero, Edwards--who spotted his craven acolyte as an enabler even more committed than his wife, Elizabeth--sucked each other into a moral abyss that led eventually to Young's willingness to pretend he was the father of the child Edwards sired with his mistress Rielle Hunter. A fascinating undercurrent for the reader is wondering at what point Young will eventually turn on his boss. Being made to mop up when the bathroom plumbing breaks down at the Edwards house? Being yelled at if there was no Diet Sprite in the ever-present cooler in the campaign car Young chauffeured the candidate around in?. . . . Finding himself the abused go-between charged with handling the candidate's communications with both an angry wife and a grabby mistress who contacted her lover through a special 'Bat phone' of which Young had proud custody?. . . .

"What a worm. But he's the worm John Edwards deserved. The truly shaming revelation here is how -- except for the hound dogs of the National Enquirer -- duped the press and the political establishment were by a candidate who, even before the Rielle Hunter craziness, was a giant phony. It should be collectively blush-making for the press to remember the newsmagazine covers, the fawning TV sitdowns, the op-ed boostings Edwards garnered in the course of his years as a crowd-pleasing, 'Kennedyesque' candidate who supposedly cared for the underdog and coined the 'Two Americas' catchphrase. It turns out that the cocoon of John Edwards' megalomania was a third America all its own."

Speaking of politicians having affairs, New York's Daily News has an advance look at Jenny Sanford's memoir of how an Argentine firecracker broke up her marriage to South Carolina's governor:

"The soon-to-be ex-First Lady writes that she decided to tell the boys about their father's affair before his cheating turned into a national news story last summer. The four boys -- Marshall, Landon, Bolton, and Blake -- ranged in age from 10 to 16 at the time.

"Jenny Sanford's memoir, 'Staying True,' from Ballantine Books, hits stores Friday. Among other revelations, Jenny Sanford writes:

"- She felt 'ugly, unwanted [and] dirty' after finding out about her horndog hubby's cheating.

"- Mark Sanford kept 'pestering' her for permission to see his mistress even after she found their lovelorn messages.

"- He was a cheapskate who once took back a birthday necklace he gave her a day earlier."

I guess revenge is sweet -- and potentially profitable.

Bestseller secrets

Speaking of political books, ABC's Matthew Mosk reports: "Sarah Palin has been using her political action committee to buy up thousands of copies of her book, 'Going Rogue,' in order to mail copies of the memoir to her donors, newly filed campaign records show.

"The former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate had her political organization spend more than $63,000 on what her reports describe as 'books for fundraising donor fulfillment.' "

O'Keefe speaks

In his first interview, with Sean Hannity, former ACORN "pimp" James O'Keefe wouldn't discuss the details of his arrest at Mary Landrieu's office. But he did say that "investigative journalists have been using a lot of these tactics for years" and accused the mainstream media of "trying to destroy me with all kinds of fabrications." In the future, he allowed, "I have to be a little more thoughtful."

But what about the fact that this was a U.S. senator's office? "It's the people's office," O'Keefe replied.

Nice try.

Really torn up

More on that really bizarre arrest of Rip Torn, in a bank with a loaded gun:

"The 'Men in Black' star was so drunk when he stumbled out of his local watering hole and down the block to the Litchfield Bancorp in Lakeville on Friday night, that he thought he was at his house, cops said yesterday.

"He even took off his hat and boots and left them at the door, a police report noted.

"And who could blame him? The bank is, after all, housed in a two-story colonial with an attic."

Stewart and Kristol

Lots of online reaction to Monday's column on Jon Stewart aiming more of his comedic ammunition at Obama and the liberals. Mediaite's Glynnis MacNicol picks up on my quotes from Bill Kristol:

"Stewart has been taking such sharp aim at the president of late (or is it that Obama is just provided a bigger target?) that some people are speculating he may be. . . . wait for it. . . . a secret neocon! (I have no doubt that was a Onion headline at some point in the last decade). . . .

"Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and an occasional guest, sees a glimmer of hope. 'Jon has always been a crypto-neocon,' he e-mails. 'Could he be coming out of the closet?. . . . A neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality.'

"Oh lordy. Actually, I have no doubt Bill Kristol has created some happy fantasy wherein Jon Stewart sees the light and comes out as a Palin 2012 supporter. But back in the land of reality it would seem that what the Right is actually reacting to is the novelty of a wildly popular (liberal media elite) comic who is able to take equally sharp non-partisan aim! In Stewart's world everyone is a target."

Ahem. At the risk of spoiling the fun, I think Kristol was attempting a bit of satire.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, 'Reliable Sources.'

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