08.19.09

Obama's Pretend Bipartisanship

Is the president delusional to hope for bipartisanship in the face of Republican demagoguery over health care? Far from it, says Eric Alterman. Obama’s using a strategy honed in last fall’s election.

UPDATE 2/26: Well, the health-care summit took us nowhere, Obama’s poll numbers are way down, and liberals, even moderates are down in the dumps.  The health-care bill is a depressing amalgam of concessions to the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, this Blue Dog, that anti-abortion advocate, and yet, now, all of a sudden, the administration is talking about doing health care through “reconciliation”—that is ramming it through the Senate with a minimum of 51 votes?  Why, oh why, didn’t they do that before they let the Republicans and the lobbyists walk all over them and screw up the bill?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I think I answered that question back in August. It was always going to be thus. Obama ran on a Rodney King “Why Can’t We All Get Along” platform and he had to try and make good on it. The pundits demanded it and the people deserved it. But the Republicans never had any incentive to help him succeed, however, and Obama, not being stupid, knew that, too. He knew it way back when he crafted his election strategy as well. And so, I would posit, this was always the plan. Try, try, try to get the Republicans to deal—make genuine concession after genuine concession and when you’ve proven your bona fides—hell, you’ve even gone to their annual meeting, invited them to the White House to talk, etc, well, then people what choice do you have?  Come in for the kill… just like you planned it.

ORIGINAL POST: Barack Obama says he still hopes the health-care bill Congress eventually passes will be “ bipartisan."

This despite the widespread impression virtually everywhere, no matter what the White House gives away, that Republicans are not planning on taking “yes” for an answer. Just as they did in 1994, Republicans, as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel appears to have finally realized, have “made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama’s health-care proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health-insurance problems that Americans face every day.”

Barely a “handful,” notes White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, appear “interested in the type of comprehensive reform that so many people believe is necessary to ensure the principles and the goals that the president has laid out.”

Obama can certainly go to the country and swear he gave this bipartisan thing every chance but these folks are, um, more interested in defeating him “than solving the health-insurance problems that Americans face every day.”

Indeed, even ranking Senate Finance Committee member Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who indulges in Sarah Palinesque nonsense about “death panels,” has acknowledged that he will likely refuse to vote in favor of a bill that gives him everything he wants if he “can’t sell my product to more Republicans.” And Republicans, like former McCain flack Michael Goldfarb, say they plan to demagogue the bill no matter what “because it’s really complicated… It would be political malpractice if Republicans didn’t exploit that confusion and use it to find their way out of the wilderness.”

Their strategy is clear. As the influential Republican strategist William Kristol advises, “With Obamacare on the ropes, there will be a temptation for opponents to let up on their criticism, and to try to appear constructive, or at least responsible…Resist the temptation. This is no time to pull punches. Go for the kill.”

So is the president delusional? An awfully large number of people are beginning to think so, particularly among his most vociferous supporters on the left. Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, asks, on The Huffington Post, “Will somebody please explain to me why Barack Obama is still on his bipartisan kick…What do these guys think they are getting by continuing to kiss up to the Republicans?”

I think the answer to Mr. Kuttner's conundrum can be found in an article, ironically enough, by one Mark Schmitt, who happens to be executive editor of, you guessed it, The American Prospect. Way back in December 2007, when supporters of both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were pummeling Obama on what they deemed was the wishy-washiness of his bipartisan appeal in the face of so nasty an opponent, Schmitt published an influential (among liberals) argument, “ The ‘Theory of Change’ Primary.” In it, Schmitt argued that liberals were “too literal in believing that ‘hope’ and bipartisanship are things that Obama naïvely believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk.”

Obama invited me to dinner shortly after he became a senator, and I got exactly the same impression. This man is, like FDR, a genuine liberal, but also a serious politician. He is not interested in moral victories or noble defeats. He wants to win. What he’s figured out, however, is that—particularly after two full decades of Bush/Clinton/Bush wars—the American people feel more comfortable with a politician who appears to reach out to the other side, who gives them a chance to play ball. This works both as an electoral strategy and a governing strategy. He gave in a little on the stimulus, but just enough to keep the ball rolling. He could always come back for more, later if necessary.

What’s more, that concession strengthened the necessary narrative for this, far more significant one. And given that the Republicans have all but admitted that they are acting in bad faith—and their supporters are showing up at health-care meetings as if armed to fight the War of the Worlds, and spouting Nazi-style slogans—Obama can certainly go to the country and swear up and down that he gave this bipartisan thing every possible chance but these folks are, um, more interested in defeating him “than solving the health-insurance problems that Americans face every day.”

The problem with this strategy is that it rests on the widespread realization that the Republicans are not serious about governance. And given how the complexity of the issues involved—and the willingness of so many in the media to indulge the likes of Palin, Kristol, Grassley, and the rest—it is hardly a straight shot to assume that the truth will eventually conquer falsehood. As of today, in fact, the lies are winning.

But what choice does Obama have? To capitulate to the opposition on health care would not only embolden the most recalcitrant elements of the Republican Party, it would amount to an admission that the country is, in significant fashion, ungovernable. And what kind of Democrat can possibly thrive in an environment like that? Better, of course, to fight than to switch; just be sure to keep that fight “bipartisan…”

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.