Magazine | February 23, 2015, Issue

A Hand Withheld

(Roman Genn)
Tales of President Obama’s bipartisanship are fictional

It’s rare for a president to conclude a State of the Union address with a long passage noting that his presidency “hasn’t delivered” on one of its central promises. President Obama did just that in January. He noted that in 2004, he had given a speech — one that brought him to national prominence — saying that “there wasn’t a liberal America or a conservative America . . . but a United States of America.” He had also said in his first presidential campaign that he wanted to “change the tone in Washington” for the better.

Nobody thinks that has happened. Obama, in the address, did not suggest that the explanation had anything to do with his own behavior over the last six years, although he did allow that he had “many” flaws. Nor did he suggest that it was foolish to promise to bring people together: His conclusion was offered as a challenge to “such cynicism.”

Viewers were left to conclude that Republicans, and perhaps the American political system, had proven a great disappointment to Obama. He was not plowing new ground. His supporters have been filling in the blanks of that explanation for years. The basic story, told with many elaborations, is that Obama met his opponents with an outstretched hand and they slapped it away, again and again.

These supporters have constructed an entire history of the Obama years, a history in which they sincerely believe. In Chapter One, congressional Republican leaders decide that Obama must be denied bipartisan accomplishments and so they will refuse to back his proposals even when they are, or include, Republican ideas. They execute this decision by voting en masse against a stimulus bill including tax cuts. They do the same to a health-care bill largely based on proposals by Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation, even after Obama has spent months fruitlessly courting Republican votes. After the second bill passes, they cast dozens of votes to repeal it and call Obama’s reelection defeat their top priority.

And a running theme throughout the story is that Republicans spend the entire presidency portraying proposals they had previously backed, for example on climate change, as socialist tyranny. The president has governed as an “Eisenhower Republican,” say some of his fans, but the Republicans do nothing but obstruct him.

There is some truth in this story, enough to have made it plausible to a lot of intelligent people who follow politics closely. But there is more that is false, misleading, or incomplete.

Start with the claim that even before Obama took office, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had decided that he would block the incoming president from making bipartisan achievements. Comments that McConnell has made to journalists are usually taken as the smoking gun for this claim. Speaking about health care to two reporters for the New York Times in 2010, he said, “It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out.” He spoke similarly to a reporter for The Atlantic in 2011.

On both occasions, McConnell was talking about the importance of Republican unity rather than of Republican obstruction. He was saying that when Republicans disagreed with the Democratic agenda, it was important to keep a handful of Republicans from defecting and giving the public a misleading picture of how much consensus had been achieved. He wasn’t saying that Republicans should weaken Obama politically by refraining from working with him.

Another McConnell quote that comes up in this context is his remark that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” President Obama and other Democrats have expressed indignation that an opposition figure would say that about a newly elected president. The remark was, in truth, made in October 2010, well into the presidency. And it was in response to a question about electoral goals; McConnell wasn’t saying that defeating Obama was more important than boosting the economy. In his very next sentence he suggested that Republicans could “do business with” Obama if he moderated. A few sentences later, he added, “I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”

Journalist Robert Draper reported on a dinner of top Republicans on the night of Obama’s inauguration, a dinner where they supposedly settled on their campaign of obstruction. What Draper shows, though, is a fairly typical partisan gathering. Some of the Republicans said that they had lost their way during the Bush administration; several came up with ideas for shots to take at the new president’s initiatives and nominees. The most obstructionist remark came from Representative Kevin McCarthy, now the House majority leader, who said, “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.” Draper does not present this comment as the eureka moment of the evening. The main action item that seems to have come out of the meeting was to go after Treasury-secretary nominee Timothy Geithner for not paying his taxes — something that any opposition party with a pulse would have done.

On rare occasions when Republicans have agreed with an Obama policy initiative, they have been willing to vote that way. Senate Republicans provided more votes for Obama’s free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia than Democrats did. McConnell was one of them.

Nor was the early behavior of congressional Republicans quite as monstrous as President Obama has portrayed it. He gave his version of events to Time columnist Joe Klein in January 2010: “I came in expressing a strong spirit of bipartisanship, and what was clear was that even in the midst of crisis, there were those who made decisions based on a quick political calculus rather than on what the country needed. The classic example being me heading over to meet with the House Republican caucus to discuss the stimulus and finding out that [House minority leader John] Boehner had already released a statement saying, We’re going to vote against the bill before we’ve even had a chance to exchange ideas.”

To put it charitably, Obama’s timeline has some omissions. On January 26, 2009, House Democrats introduced a stimulus bill with no Republican input. The next day, Obama spoke to the House Republicans, and their leaders said they appreciated the gesture and urged House Democrats to bargain with them. The day after that, all House Republicans followed Boehner’s recommendation by voting against the Democratic bill: a bill that had, again, been written by Democrats before any exchange of ideas had occurred.

The stimulus debate set the tone for the rest of the Obama years — just not in the way the president has suggested. Republicans in Congress concluded from that debate that whatever nice words Obama said about working together, the Democrats would ignore them.

#page#It is true that the stimulus included tax cuts of a sort. Republicans generally favor supply-side tax cuts that improve incentives to work, save, and invest. They had accepted tax rebates that did not have those features in a bipartisan deal under President George W. Bush the previous year. What they had not done was accept legislation that combined a kind of tax cut for which they had little enthusiasm with hundreds of billions in spending, and that they had played no part in writing. It’s not surprising that almost no Republicans found that offer tempting.

Conservative opposition to Obamacare was not surprising either, and does not require Republican partisanship, nihilism, or insanity to explain. It is true that some major Republican and conservative figures had endorsed prominent features of Obamacare before. The Heritage Foundation really did support the individual mandate before Obama did — speaking of reversals of position, we should not forget his opposition to it in the 2008 primaries — and favor the creation of government-run exchanges. Romney really did sign a plan with those features into law in Massachusetts.

But Obamacare also included elements that very few Republicans had ever supported. No congressional Republican has voted for tax increases on the scale of Obamacare in decades. Heritage and Romney never spoke up for having a board of experts use Medicare spending to standardize medical practices. And while Heritage was an important conservative voice, its views were always contested on the right and never had the support of most grassroots conservatives. I doubt that there was ever a point at which a majority of a representative sample of self-described conservatives in our country would have told pollsters that they favored requiring people to buy health insurance.

It is perfectly reasonable for liberals to point out that the body of Republican opinion has drifted right on health care (just as it would be reasonable to note that, for example, Democratic opinion on entitlements drifted left between the late-Clinton years and President Bush’s attempt to reform Social Security). And they are within their rights to make their unconvincing case that conservatives should like a lot of what’s in Obamacare.

But there is no case that Obama actually solicited and included input from Republicans in the design of the health-care bill. He tried to pick off one or two outliers among the Republicans, such as Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine: the sort of thing that McConnell suggested was fake bipartisanship. Democrats dropped the “public option” provision of their plan — it would have allowed the government to provide health insurance directly to any working-age American who wanted it — because it was too left-wing for a lot of Democratic senators.

And that was it for concessions. The Democrats could have added medical-malpractice reform to their bill without changing its basic design. That might have won them some support from congressional Republicans, many of whom had already demonstrated they would go along with Democratic proposals to expand government programs to extend health coverage. In Obama’s first month in office, 40 House Republicans and eight Senate Republicans (not counting Arlen Specter, who became a Democrat the following year) voted to enlarge the children’s-health-insurance program, and more would have if not for a dispute about immigration.

Rahm Emanuel, at that time Obama’s chief of staff, reportedly nixed the malpractice idea because it offended trial lawyers and other elements of the Democratic coalition. Eventually the president pushed the legislation through over the objections of almost all Republicans, most independents, and some Democrats.

The notion that Republicans have held dozens of votes to repeal Obamacare is also a fiction, albeit one that both parties have had reasons to indulge. (Democrats want to portray Republicans as unreasonable, and Republicans want to portray themselves as steadfast, in fighting Obamacare.) President Obama has made this claim himself, for instance in the 2014 State of the Union address. The count includes many votes to repeal parts of Obamacare, such as the individual mandate. It even includes some votes on proposals that Obama himself eventually signed into law, such as the repeal of an entitlement to long-term care that was part of Obamacare.

Republicans deserve criticism for not advancing their own, more conservative health-care proposals. The criticisms from the left, however, have been made in bad faith. Democrats complain that Republicans are so obsessed with repealing the law that they will not work to modify it; when they try to modify it, and even succeed, Democrats treat it as more evidence of their alleged obsession.

It is widely known that President Obama does not solicit the advice of congressional Democrats, let alone congressional Republicans. “House Democrats can’t figure out why Obama won’t talk to them” was a headline in The Hill last summer. A December Washington Post story referred to congressional Democrats with some understatement as “a group that has been disenchanted by the treatment it has received from the White House over the years.”

Consider what happened when House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor stuck their necks out in favor of an Obama initiative in the summer of 2013. The president said that he wanted air strikes against the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle blasted the idea, but Boehner and Cantor supported Obama. Then the president abandoned the idea in a televised address, without even telling them first.

Because the White House does not talk to Republicans, it does not know what they want. This ignorance impedes deal-making and leads to miscalculations. The administration has repeatedly bet that Republicans were more eager to raise defense spending than to cut other spending or stop tax increases. Talking to them would have dispelled that impression. But the one prominent member of the administration who does talk to Republicans — Vice President Joe Biden — has been sidelined by the White House because they think he gets along with them too well.

Calling someone an Eisenhower Republican today is not informative. To see how unhelpful it is to think this way, try to imagine Ike pushing an unpopular restructuring of the health-care system through Congress. Obama’s actual record is that of a progressive politician seeking to get his way on as many issues as possible given the political constraints on him.

Assuming that his progressive politics are wise, that was an honorable course of action. Four years ago he came close to making that point, telling reporters on Air Force One that he had lost sight of the need for bipartisanship in his zeal to solve the country’s problems. Had a conservative Republican been president with the kind of commanding majorities in Congress that Obama enjoyed, he probably would have behaved in mirror-image fashion. Perhaps, though, he would have done so with a bit less cant about bringing people together.

It may be that congressional Republicans would have slapped the president’s hand away if he had reached out to them. They never got that chance.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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