From Détente to Taunts

Obama’s promise of post-partisanship is almost completely gone.

John Boehner

Once upon a time, the Obama administration tried hard to show it listened to Republican ideas. Two months ago, when Congress was debating the stimulus bill, presidential aides pointed to tax cuts in the legislation that Republicans had requested (even though lots of Democrats asked for the same tax cuts). They said Minority Whip Eric Cantor had given them the idea of tracking stimulus spending online (even though they were already planning to do that).

That was then. Now the administration has all but given up even the pretense of bipartisanship. At a recent lunch with reporters, Budget Director Peter Orszag was asked if he could name a useful idea submitted by Republicans. He couldn’t—and didn’t even pretend he’d considered many. When House Republicans put out a budget last week, press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “The party of no has become the party of no ideas.”

Gibbs probably wouldn’t have said that 40 days ago, when the White House was treating the issue of bipartisanship more carefully. But after party-line votes in the House and Senate and minimum flexibility from GOP leaders, Obama aides say that Republicans are not “acting in good faith.” Which leads them to two conclusions: One, their acts of conciliation buy them nothing in negotiations with the GOP; two, and more important, they’ve decided they’ll pay no political price for acting in a more partisan fashion.

With no penalty to be paid for dropping the pretense, Obama aides hope to push their luck by painting Republicans as either irrelevant or ridiculous. The equation is simple: The more clownish the opposition seems, the more the White House can get away with.

The White House is getting lots of help as the GOP sorts through its leadership problems.

After an internal debate, House GOP leaders put out a 19-page budget last week that was more press release than governing document. Whatever substantive arguments might have been found in the document, they weren’t strong enough to overcome the fact that it lacked numbers—a seemingly crucial first step for anything called a budget (which is why previous opposition budgets included numbers). Senior White House aides reacted with glee at the idea of using the document to bury Republicans.

This weekend the confusion mounted. John McCain said Republican senators were working on an alternative budget with numbers. But his party leaders said they would be offering no such thing. The DNC reacted with predictable derision.

The president and his aides can’t be completely dismissive, because voters have told pollsters they want Obama to make good on his promises to reach across the aisle. Plus, Obama and his team want to leave the door open enough to allow Republicans to come back once they realize, out of political necessity, that they need to vote with the White House.

But so far the president doesn’t look like he’s in danger. He often frames Republicans unfairly or defines them by their most extreme elements, but he is not openly derisive (in part, say aides, because he still hopes to diminish partisanship). In the cut and thrust so far, it’s congressional Republicans who have taken the political hit. They are unpopular in the polls—only 29 percent of Americans view them favorably, according to a recent CBS News poll, compared with 50 percent who approve of congressional Democrats. And voters think the president is trying a good deal harder than Republicans to find bipartisan solutions.

The best measure of how far we’ve not traveled may be Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. Back in January, there was talk of the stimulus bill getting 80 votes in the Senate, including a slew of Republicans. Now the White House and some Democrats are considering using the process of “budget reconciliation” to pass important initiatives on health care and energy—a process that allows them to pass these bills without Republican votes. “You’re talking about running over the minority, putting them in the cement, and throwing them in the Chicago River,” says Gregg. (He was less troubled by this process when it was used by Republicans.) This is the man who, until about six weeks ago, was Obama’s choice for commerce secretary. A lot has changed since then.