Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Time to call their bluff

by Don Klein

Years ago when I was new to reporting a sagacious elder told me that politics is the art of compromise. Over the years I remembered that rule and watched how it worked on every level of government. That is the true meaning of bipartisanship.

You give a little. I give a little. And before long we have an agreement and legislation is enacted.

Last week when President Obama went before the Republican meeting in Baltimore in a face-to-face showdown on public policy it gave the appearance of the start of bipartisanship in action, but really it was just an extension of what has been going on for the entire first year of his presidency.

It appeared that Obama was making a serious attempt to bridge some of the issues that separate the executive and Republicans. I am sorry to conclude that I did not see the same serious act of honest conciliation on the part of the Republicans who spoke out.

The most glaring different between the Democratic president and his GOP opponents was contrition. He had it, they didn’t. He acknowledged that he did not do everything he said he would do during the 2008 campaign and promised to do better in the future. They, on the other hand, stood fast and never admitted standing in the way of legislative progress during last year.

Obama shocked them when he said he had read their counter proposals on several issues and incorporated the best ideas into bills at issue and rejected others for reasons of good government. While the Republicans hardly ever budged from their unwillingness to cooperate with the administration on any issue.

In the end, Obama walked away from the meeting a much more admirable figure than any of his sniveling opponents who only seemed to be interested in stymying any program which put a new face on solutions to problems. The GOP clearly wants to follow the same old, dysfunctional policies of the Bush administration which brought on the terrible state of the nation today.

Examples: They want to solve the severe national financial shortfall by more tax cuts when what the government needs is more income, not less. They still want to implore the old, harmful plans to cut entitlements and privatize social security instead of seeking new solutions. They don’t want to be labeled the "party of no" by Democrats while never voting in favor of anything the Obama party proposes.

The Republicans are wracked by their well-deserved negative image and want the president to make them look good again. They almost unanimously praised the idea of the meeting and thanked Obama for taking up their invitation, but most of them behind the scenes thought they should not repeat the meeting.

They realize they took a beating on view for all to see on television.

Frankly, I hope I am wrong but my gut feeling tells me there will be no change in relationship in Washington the coming year. The GOP sees their current obstructive policies paying off by causing a new round of gridlock, which the public despises and takes out on incumbents. So far the victims have all been Democrats. The New Jersey and Virginia governorships went their way and more recently the half-century-old Democratic seat in the Senate from Massachusetts went Republican.

They feel obstructionism works to their favor and although Obama seems destined to make points whenever he faced them in open debate, they seem to win at the voting booth. And since this is an election year for all the seats of the House of Representatives and one-third the Senate, why should they start cooperating for the good of the rest of us now?

I don’t see any improvement in relations on the horizon between the two sides in Washington. More gridlock. More ridiculous, meaningless opposition up and down the line. And more problems for the grass roots where unemployment demands a unified government approach to problems.

The Obama visit to the Republican retreat last week was good public relations for Obama, not the Republicans. They will not repeat it soon, or ever, because it did not serve their purpose. I feel they invited the president in the first place because they expected him to decline the invitation and thereby give the Republicans a political victory without an actual face-off. It didn’t work

Being obstructive only goes so far. It pleases the distant right wing because these lovers of Bush extremism see Obama as an abomination for many incoherent reasons. But the majority of Americans think highly of the president and not so well of the Republicans, according to all polls taken recently. If the Republicans continue to cater to the extremists by blocking legislative action in the Senate they will be surprised in November.

If the Democrats were smart, now that they have dithered away their 60 vote majority -- and I wonder about the Senate leadership -- they should push legislation to one filibuster after another and allow the public to measure which is truly the Party of No. I think the Republicans are bluffing and cannot sustain many filibusters without causing damage to themselves.

Let them kill economic recovery. Let them stop health reform. Let them fight excessive federal spending which they themselves perfected during the Bush years. Let them bring government down to inaction. Then let them go to the polls in November and ask the public to put them into power. It would be ironic and the best thing to happen for the Democrats.

But it takes bold-faced courage, and I don’t know if the Democrats have any.