The gridlock option

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010; 10:35 AM

The essential zinger that President Obama is using against the Republicans is that they ran the car into the ditch and voters shouldn't give them the keys back.

Democrats, who are acutely aware of the president's sinking poll numbers, flush out the argument this way:

Sure, the country blames us for the rotten economy and thinks we spent too much time on health care, but what's the GOP alternative? They're the party of no, they don't offer a positive agenda, and they did crash the economy at the end of Bush's term -- after years of overspending. Polls show the public is as fed up with the Republicans as they are with us. Obama is trying to do the right thing -- the stimulus did create plenty of jobs -- and the Republicans shouldn't be rewarded for being obstructionists.

But what if Americans like obstructionists?

By which I mean, what if the country, having sampled all-Democratic rule in Washington, would much prefer divided government?

It has, of course, happened before. Voters saddled Ronald Reagan with a Democratic Senate in his last two years in office. Bill Clinton seemed to overreach in his first two years and the voters rewarded him with a Republican Congress for the last six. George W. Bush was six years into his term when the voters gave Democrats control of both chambers.

That's why the Obama rhetoric about giving back the keys may fall flat: A Republican Congress wouldn't be running things. It would be more in the role of backseat driver. GOP lawmakers could schedule hearings, issue subpoenas, keep bills off the floor -- but would have a hard time passing anything over a presidential veto.

That could be a formula for gridlock -- but if enough voters are angry at big government, they might prefer a government that doesn't do much.

Or it could force both parties to compromise, as when Clinton and the Gingrich Congress agreed on welfare reform and a balanced budget. (Then came 1998, when that Congress did little more than impeach the president for lying about his fling with the intern.)

Most voters might not vote strategically -- they might just choose between an incumbent and a challenger, say -- but they may at least be aware that they could make Obama and the Republicans share power.

Why can't Obama seem to get any traction? We'll lead off with Slate's John Dickerson:

"When politicians are confronted with bad poll numbers, they often say that these surveys are just a 'snapshot in time.' That can be true. Fortunes can change. Doom is not locked in. But what's so bad about these surveys is that they paint a very dark picture about the president's ability to brighten the future. If Obama can't improve things for Democrats, no one can. And as bad as the president's numbers are, the Democrats in Congress are in even worse shape.

"Candidate Obama used to joke about rays of sunshine coming in when he started to speak. Now he brings the clouds. He's spent a great deal of time talking about the Recovery Act and health care reform, but the political fortunes of those programs are dismal, which suggests his ability to persuade and change minds is seriously damaged. . . .

"The best news for the president and Democrats is that 62 percent of those polled say that Congress should extend unemployment benefits. Republicans have blocked legislation that would do so and the president has gone after them for it. The White House also takes comfort in the fact that the country has an even lower opinion of Republicans in Congress than they do of the president. Still, 51 percent of the country tell The Washington Post that they'll vote for a Republican to put a break on Obama policies, and those who say they are most likely to vote in the November elections say they prefer the GOP over Democratic rule by 56 to 41 percent."

National Review's Jonah Goldberg sees a classic case of overreaching -- but says Republicans have to step up:

"Democrats steamrolled the most ambitiously liberal agenda in at least a generation. Yet liberals are miserable. Their lamentations over what they see as President Obama's lack of audacity punctuate the din, like ululating matrons at an Arab politician's funeral.

"This misplaced griping stems not from Obama's failure to 'think big' but from a misreading of the political climate: Liberals thought they'd be popular. . . . All those liberal pundits who prophesized an Obama-led 'new New Deal' must feel foolish as they don their life preservers and head to higher ground in anticipation of the electoral tsunami heading their way in November. . . .

"Much of the GOP leadership has been content saying 'no' for two reasons -- one good, one bad. When Obama was tall in the saddle and determined to exploit the economic crisis on his terms, there was no point in offering real alternatives. And it's just a lot easier to criticize than it is to lead.

"Now is the time for the GOP to call Obama's bluff and offer a real choice. My personal preference would be for the leadership to embrace Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's 'road map,' a sweeping, bold, and humane assault on the welfare state and our debt crisis."

The Democrats aren't going to paint it as "humane" when it comes to blowing up Social Security as we know it.

Roger Simon is amazed at the GOP comeback:

"The Democrats want the energy, the spirit, the enthusiasm, the mojo that they had after Obama's victory in 2008.

"That spirit is gone, stolen by the tea partiers who wave their 'Don't Tread on Me' flags, wear tri-cornered hats and carry sidearms with a sense of giddy delight.

"Who would have thought just a matter of months ago that the Republicans would be the party of enthusiasm? The Republicans were the party of tired old white men who had just been thrashed by the magnetic and mesmerizing Obama, whose words flowed like silver from his lips.

"Then, a terrible thing happened: Obama began to do things. He saved the economy from disaster. He provided new medical coverage for children. He passed historic health care reform for the entire nation. But who turned on him? Liberal Democrats."

Turning to a new coalition of liberal groups dubbed One Nation, Simon says: "I am on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what the branding and logo will look like.

"The tea partiers already have the tri-cornered hats, the rattlesnake flags and firearms as their branding. Maybe the liberals could adopt sushi, a latte and an iPad."

What? Conservatives don't like sushi?

The following warning from William Galston, in the New Republic, carries some weight because he was a Clinton White House official. He says the Dems could lose the Senate:

"Barbara Boxer is really in trouble, and it's part of a larger California story: The most recent survey had Meg Whitman up seven over Jerry Brown in the gubernatorial contest.

"Patty Murray and Russ Feingold are fighting for their political lives.

"Colorado has been moving away from the Democratic Party since early in the Obama administration, and intra-party squabbling over the Senate nomination has increased the odds against Bennet.

"The surge some expected toward Harry Reid after the Republicans nominated an 'out-of-the-mainstream' candidate has not yet materialized.

"Illinois's 'deep-blue' status may not be enough to counteract the effects of a weak Democratic nominee. . . .

"It's entirely possible that when the dust settles this November, Republicans will have hit the trifecta--President Obama's former seat, Vice President Biden's former seat, plus the Senate majority leader's seat."

Cue scary music for the Dems.

A question of ethics

What's come to be accepted as standard practice on the Hill is now under scrutiny:

"The Office of Congressional Ethics has sent corporate donors and fund-raising hosts more than three dozen requests for documents involving eight members who solicited and took large contributions from financial institutions even as they were debating the landmark regulatory bill, according to lawyers involved in the inquiry," the NYT reports.

"The requests are focusing on a series of fund-raisers last December, in the days immediately before the House's initial adoption of the sweeping overhaul, which could win final approval this week. Some of the fund-raising events took place the same days as crucial votes."

About time someone took on these shabby practices. But how do you make the case that this is improper and taking the money a month later is not?

Less than original

We don't expect our candidates to be great prose stylists, but this is ridiculous:

"A new example of possible plagiarism by Scott McInnis surfaced Tuesday as the Republican gubernatorial candidate faced calls to repay $300,000 he received for plagiarized essays on water that he submitted as 'original works.'

"A Denver Post review of McInnis' floor speeches and columns published during his congressional career found striking similarities between a 1995 speech and 1994 column by McInnis and a previously published op-ed in The Washington Post.

" 'There is a growing popular belief in South Korea that the North has outmaneuvered Washington and marginalized the South's role,' wrote Richard V. Allen and Daryl M. Plunk in a Washington Post Op-Ed published Nov. 9, 1994.

" 'Six months later, McInnis Rocky Mountain News: 'There is growing South Korean sentiment that North Korea has outmaneuvered Washington and marginalized the South's input into this issue.' A month after that, he made the same statement on the House floor with only minor alteration."

In journalism, that's a firing offense.

Terror and race

An Obama interview you may not have heard about is stirring criticism on the right, as we see from Commentary's Jennifer Rubin. She says that "Jake Tapper relates a rather amazing effort to inject race into the war against Islamic terrorists:

"In an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation to air in a few hours, President Obama disparaged al Qaeda and affiliated groups' willingness to kill Africans in a manner that White House aides say was an argument that the terrorist groups are racist.

"Oh, good grief. Al-Qaeda isn't a racist organization -- it's an organization that kills regardless of race anyone who stands in the way of its Islamo-fascist vision. The notion that it is racist is not only ignorant but also transparently manipulative. Does the administration really think that Africans can only be motivated if they think race is behind the slaughter of their people? And does Obama mean to suggest that al-Qaeda is pro-white? The mind reels."

Lovebirds again

So here's how it was orchestrated: First Levi Johnston, who had been saying all kinds of nasty things about Sarah Palin, issued an apology in People magazine. Then he and his estranged girlfriend land themselves on the cover of People's top rival:

"Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston reveal exclusively in the new Us Weekly that they are getting married.

"And, they tell Us Weekly, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has been kept in the dark about their plans . . . until now.

" 'We got engaged two weeks ago,' Bristol, 19, tells Us Weekly. 'It felt right, even though we don't have the approval of our parents.'

"Bristol and Levi, 20 -- who famously called off their previous engagement two weeks after welcoming son Tripp in December 2008 -- tell Us Weekly they reconnected three months ago while working out a custody plan for their 18-month-old son."

I wish them all the luck in the world. But what does it say that they chose to make the announcement in a celebrity magazine?

Gibson's gun

As if the racist and misogynist tapes weren't enough, the New York Post reports, Mel Gibson has allegedly been acting like a Hollywood movie villain:

"Mel Gibson allegedly threatened to use his own 'Lethal Weapon' against his baby mama in a fit of rage, an explosive report revealed yesterday, as a fourth tape of his rantings was released.

"The crazed actor allegedly pulled a gun on ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva during a violent confrontation earlier this year, according to the report. The allegation could be the final nail in the coffin for the 'Lethal Weapon' star, who is already being investigated by LA cops for an alleged physically and verbally abusive blowup at Grigorieva on Jan. 6.

"Grigorieva told investigators that Gibson, 54, waved a gun in her face after she was beaten by him and tried to get away. 'Mel re-emerged holding the gun and began waving it in front of Oksana's face, she has told investigators,' a source told Radar Online. 'Oksana said she was panicked and, while searching for the keys, Mel came up to her and said, 'I will show you how to get out of here fast,' which she interpreted to be a death threat.' "

This would read like a really bad B-movie script if it weren't real life.

Leaning right

Does the Los Angeles Times care about being fair and balanced online? Here's the latest from Kevin Roderick of LAObserved:

"Well, you can't say the Los Angeles Times isn't fully embracing its odd and increasingly controversial strategy of going partisan Republican -- and only Republican -- in its national politics blogging. In addition to Andrew Malcolm [a former Laura Bush spokesman], who has carved out a new identity as a Republican pundit and Sarah Palin promoter since becoming the LAT's only fulltime staff blogger, his backup at Top of the Ticket has now been hired as deputy online editor of the paper. Jimmy Orr has also been online editor of the Christian Science Monitor, and before that was chief Internet strategist for President George W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Life beyond politics

Lloyd Grove takes a personal look at radio host and Fox commentator Laura Ingraham:

"If Ingraham (pronounced 'ingram') seems to have mellowed slightly since I knew her in Washington, when she was a razor-edged talking head and I was a reporter for The Washington Post, maybe it can be chalked up to some personal crucibles--a battle with breast cancer, a melodramatic dating life that was frequent fodder for the gossip columns, and her adopting two children--one from Guatemala and the other from Russia--as a single mom.

" 'I feel like I was given a real second chance after the whole breast-cancer thing,' she tells me. 'It just changed everything--it changed the way I thought, it changed my way of looking at the world. I try not to waste time. I try not to sweat the small stuff. I don't always succeed, but I try. Before that, I was kind of a ball-bearing in a box, tipping from one side to the other. . . . These children are just God's blessing--the most amazing gift.' "

Get me rewrite

This job posting for a Charlotte Observer copy editor needs, um, a little copy editing.

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

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