Obama’s Bipartisan Opportunity
From the February 7, 2011, issue of NR


Ramesh Ponnuru

The liberal storyline of the last two years of politics goes something like this: President Obama is really a very moderate fellow, but Republicans have lurched so far to the right that they are incapable of working with him. They reject even ideas that were originally theirs, such as a health-care reform that borrows from past plans offered by such Republicans as Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney. Their extremism is the reason for the capital’s bitter partisanship. You can read analyses along these lines any week in Slate, The New Republic, the newsweeklies, and the New York Times — any place where the conventional wisdom is formed.

The storytellers are, by and large, intelligent people, and their story has some basis in reality. The Republican party has in many respects moved rightward. A Republican as liberal as Nixon could not win the presidential primary contest nowadays, and would not be able to win a House primary in many locales. (On the other hand, Republicans are not going to nominate a presidential candidate who talks about making Social Security voluntary, as Barry Goldwater did in 1964.) Liberal policy initiatives can no longer count on bipartisan support, as they once could.

But it is not true that bipartisan cooperation is now impossible, or that it requires President Obama to capitulate entirely to conservatives. The tax deal passed in the last days of the last Congress split conservatives — most conservative congressmen supported it but many conservative commentators opposed it — because it had both conservative and liberal elements.

Republicans’ takeover of the House, and increased strength in the Senate, does not doom the chances for more bipartisanship. It increases President Obama’s likelihood of succeeding in his professed goal of enacting a free-trade agreement with South Korea. If Obama would also push for the enactment of deals that have already been negotiated with Colombia and Panama, he would find plenty of Republican backing — just as President Clinton got more Republican than Democratic support on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Labor unions would be outraged, as they were by Clinton, but these deals would violate no longstanding principle of the Democratic party.

Social Security has divided the parties in the recent past, as when President Bush proposed letting young workers invest some of the taxes they pay to support the program in personal accounts. Democrats were nearly unanimous in opposition. If they were sincere in their stated views at the time, though, bipartisanship is possible on this issue as well. Republicans would have to give up, at least for the time being, on personal accounts. In exchange Democrats would have to give up on payroll tax increases.

These concessions would pave the way for a deal reducing the growth of Social Security benefits over time. To make them more palatable to liberals, the deal could be structured in a “progressive” manner. Benefits could be adjusted so that high earners who retire in 2040 get paychecks worth no more than those of high earners who retire next year. Both Clinton and Al Gore said that instead of personal accounts they wanted to give low-income workers tax credits to set up investment accounts outside of Social Security. To sweeten the deal still further, Democrats could get these “add-on accounts” as well.

Republicans would get spending cuts and a sharply reduced threat of tax increases; Democrats would get increased progressivity; and President Obama would head into his reelection campaign with the enormous accomplishment of making Social Security solvent. Obama would also have made good, in an undeniable way, on his promise to be a post-partisan president.