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Is Obama Redefining Bipartisanship?

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a frequent contributor to a variety of political journals. 

In recent news coverage of congressional action on health care reform, we're back to one of Washington's favorite games: the bipartisan trashing of the idea that Barack Obama cares about bipartisanship. Here's a nice distillation of the CW from the New York Times' Robert Pear and Michael Herszenhorn:

White House officials said they had a new standard for bipartisanship: the number of Republican ideas incorporated in the legislation, rather than the number of Republican votes for a Democratic bill. Mr. Obama said the health committee bill "includes 160 Republican amendments," and he said that was "a hopeful sign of bipartisan support for the final product."

Slate's John Dickerson sees this as the administration "replacing the traditional definition of bipartisanship with their version in the hopes that people don't notice but still like the result."

This bait-and-switch interpretation of the White House's m.o., is, of course, political gold to Republicans, since it simultaneously absolves them of any responsibility the breakdown in bipartisanship while labeling the president as both partisan and deceitful. As has been the case throughout this year when Obama's commitment to bipartisanship has been called into question, it is broadly assumed that the "traditional" definition of bipartisanship--pols getting together in Washington and cutting deals--is what candidate Obama was talking about on the campaign trail.

But there's actually not much evidence of that. Obama eschewed Washington's aisle-crossing metric in many of his famous campaign speeches, including his famous speech announcing his candidacy in February of 2007, his speech the night he clinched the Democratic nomination, and even on an occasion that screamed for the clubby bipartisanship of Washington, a bipartisan dinner on the eve of his nomination in which he shared the stage with his John McCain.

Obama made the same point over and over again in his rhetoric about bipartisanship: It's about focusing on big national challenges without letting minor details get in the way of progress, and it's about forcing the parties in Washington to deal with those challenges in the first place. It's certainly not about the president of the United States going to Mitch McConnell and John Boener and saying: "Okay, boys, what do you want to do now?" In the past, I've called it "grassroots bipartisanship," since it's aimed more at disgruntled rank-and-file Republicans and Republican-leaning independents than at Republican elected officials. But whether that's right or not, it's clearly a conditional bipartisanship that depends on the willingness of the opposition to share the agenda on which Obama was elected.

Do congressional Republicans today share Obama's goals, and simply disagree with Democrats on some details of implementation? With a very few exceptions, no, they don't. On climate change, the range of opinion among congressional Republicans and conservative interest groups ranges from outright denial of global warming, to rejection of climate change as the top energy priority (viz. Sarah Palin's recent op-ed refusing to acknowledge any issue other than "energy independence"), to rejection of any immediate action as impossible under current conditions. This refusal to cooperate is all the more remarkable since Democrats have themselves unilaterally compromised by embracing a market-oriented approach to regulating carbon emissions--the same approach once championed by the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee--called "cap-and-trade," which Republicans have now branded "cap-and-tax."

And are congressional Republicans and conservative elites committed to universal health coverage? Maybe a few are, but the GOP's opposition to Democratic health reform efforts has increasingly involved a defense of the status quo in health care (aside than their bizarre insistence that "frivolous lawsuits" are the main problem). Their violent rhetoric about the costs associated with universal health care is matched only by their violent opposition to any measures that would reduce those costs.

So you really can't blame the White House for citing outreach to Republicans and adoption of Republican amendments as evidence of about the most bipartisanship they can reasonably achieve. If, like Dickerson, and many commentators from both ends of the political spectrum, you define bipartisanship in a way that excludes anything that doesn't involve the sacrifice of basic principles or the abandonment of key policy goals, then to be sure, Barack Obama is not pursuing bipartisanship in that manner. But then he never was.

--Ed Kilgore