Betting on Bipartisanship

Thursday, February 19, 2009; Page A15

As far as most of Washington is concerned, Barack Obama's big talk about bipartisanship is kaput. One month into his presidency, many pundits and political analysts have told him to drop it. Get real, they say. It bought you next to nothing on the stimulus bill. Forget the compromising. Look for support where you may actually find it, on the Democratic side of the aisle.

In Tuesday's Post, my colleague Richard Cohen urged Obama to muzzle "all the gauzy talk about [banishing] partisanship" and said that "the desire to think that political differences are manufactured and can be sweet-smiled into consensus is touching but unrealistic."

In the same day's New York Times, James Morone, a Brown University political scientist, said that American history shows bipartisanship to be a myth. "Kind words and good intentions cannot build a bridge between competing political philosophies," he wrote.

Some consider Obama's wooing of Republicans a rookie mistake, a measure of his naivete. Others focus on the Republicans and fault them for obduracy in denying Obama all but three of their votes on the stimulus bill. The critics agree that the effort at bipartisanship should end.

I hope Obama isn't listening. It's the worst advice he has received.

It starts from a false premise: that the stimulus bill proves the failure of outreach to Republicans. In fact, had Obama not negotiated successfully with Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter and met most of their terms, his bill would have died. This was a success for bipartisanship, not a failure.

Morone's history also is false. To prove that bipartisanship has never existed, he has to skip over Harry Truman's success with a Republican Congress on the Marshall Plan, Lyndon Johnson's forging the great civil rights acts with Sen. Everett Dirksen and Rep. Bill McCulloch, and Ronald Reagan's steering his first budget and tax bill through a Democratic House.

But the real reason Obama should ignore this advice is that he will need Republican votes to pass the remaining parts of his program. When it comes to energy, regional and commodity interests will inevitably divide the Democrats. They always do. Oil, coal, natural gas and consumer groups will exert their will. If Obama writes off the Republicans in advance, he will end up with a watered-down bill -- or nothing.

This is even more true when it comes to health care. We saw what happened when the Clintons rebuffed John Chafee and other potential Republican allies; without their help, the Clintons could not even bring a bill to the floor. It will be exquisitely difficult to negotiate changes to a system of vital importance to every family, considering that hospitals, doctors and other providers, and insurers all have huge economic stakes. One of the few breaks Obama can count on is that Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) have collected a growing number of Democrats and Republicans as co-sponsors of an innovative bill. Obama would be foolish to ignore them.

The same thing applies to immigration reform. Does anyone really think Obama would be well advised to put that issue before Congress without having a long, serious conversation with his 2008 opponent, John McCain? Even if they reached complete agreement, passage would be a heavy lift. But at least it would have a chance.

And think ahead to entitlement reform. Democrats will never tackle Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- and the taxes to finance them -- unless, as former Wyoming senator Al Simpson used to say, significant numbers of Republicans agree to "link arms and go over the cliff together."

I have not even mentioned issues such as trade, where Obama may look to Republicans to offset protectionist impulses among Democrats.

Nor will Obama have an easier time coping with the manifold challenges of the world -- Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the rest -- without bipartisan support. When he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama had a close-up view of the productive partnership between Democrat Joe Biden, now the vice president, and Republican Dick Lugar, whichever one of them held the chairman's gavel. Biden and Lugar can help Obama immeasurably.

To throw all this away out of frustration with what happened on the stimulus bill would be insane. If the political wise guys can't see that, let's hope the president can.

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