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.
Many experts on national-security law, from both the right and the left, have agreed that Congress should create a system of national-security courts to try suspected terrorists. Such a system would acknowledge the accuracy of the Right’s complaint that subjecting such cases to the procedures of ordinary criminal courts is inappropriate and dangerous. But these courts would also have the independence from the military and the executive branch that liberals demand. They would have the advantages that come with specialization. The main obstacle to this plan is that President Obama would have to drop the Left’s position that anything other than ordinary criminal trials is a retreat from American values — a position both he and Attorney General Eric Holder have taken.
A bipartisan coalition passed tax reform in 1986, and in theory a similar coalition could do so again. Liberals such as Rep. Charles Rangel, until recently the head of the House committee with jurisdiction over taxes, have endorsed reducing the corporate tax rate (the industrialized world’s highest) in return for repealing business tax breaks. Even reform of the personal income tax could offer common ground. If the president proposed to cap the tax deduction for state and local taxes, reduce the tax break for large mortgages, and use the proceeds to lower tax rates, state governments and real-estate lobbyists would howl — but conservatives who favor pro-growth reform and liberals who want a more progressive code would both have reason to cheer.
Or what if the president took on corporate welfare, including subsidies to agribusiness? A lot of farm-state Republicans would oppose him, but other Republicans would stand with him.
Suggesting that cooperation is possible in all these areas may sound starry-eyed. But it was in the 1990s, not all that long ago, that a Democratic president and a Republican Congress were able to reach agreement on reducing farm subsidies, reforming welfare, modernizing financial regulations, and enacting trade agreements. President Clinton and Newt Gingrich were even reportedly on the brink of an agreement to reform Social Security when the Monica Lewinsky scandal divided the parties and made Clinton too dependent on his liberal base to risk a deal. Nor were all the compromises center-right triumphs: Clinton and a Republican Congress were willing to increase governmental involvement in health care so long as liberals didn’t try for a sweeping, comprehensive overhaul directed from Washington, D.C.
Perhaps needless to say, all this compromise did not prevent the parties from sparring vigorously on other issues. Many Republicans loathed Clinton, in part because his political success was so frustrating. Liberals were often dissatisfied with him. A few resigned from his administration over welfare reform. In the end, though, most liberals stayed with Clinton through his two terms in office. They knew they could count on him to make liberal appointments to the judiciary, to support liberal initiatives where feasible, and generally to be well to the left of the Republicans. Many of them also appreciated that his moderation helped him get elected. Clinton was the first Democratic president since FDR to avoid an intraparty challenge, and to win, when he ran for a second, full term.
President Obama has always expressed opposition to being a Clinton-style president, because it would forfeit the chance to transform the country. His strategists also seem more worried than the Clintonites were about the political risks of a disaffected base. Liberalism has changed since the 1990s. It is more suspicious of free trade; it includes a loud and angry netroots.
A Democrat could reasonably maintain that today’s political circumstances dictate less compromise than Clinton practiced. A liberal could honorably argue that meeting today’s policy challenges requires less compromise as well. What cannot sensibly be argued is that increased Republican extremism is to blame for today’s lack of bipartisanship.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review. This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2011, issue of National Review.