Everyone remembers that George W. Bush’s first tax cut was contentious when Congress considered it back in 2001. So contentious, in fact, that the Bushies didn’t even try passing it under normal Senate procedures. The GOP leadership, worried that it couldn’t collect 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster, relied on reconciliation, the Senate rule that allows budget-related measures to pass with a simple majority.
What fewer people remember is the margin by which Bush’s tax cut finally passed the Senate. As it happens, the number of yeas was 62—including 12 Democrats. That would qualify as a bipartisan love-fest by contemporary standards.
There’s a lesson here: For months now, Republicans and many Democrats have faulted the White House for being too partisan in its dealings with Congress on health care. For example, in an article in The Hill this week, one centrist senator complained that chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had “misjudged the Senate by focusing on only a few Republicans.” “The Senate doesn't work that way,” the senator said. “You need a radius of 10 to 12 from the other side if you're going to have a shot."
But the Bush analogy suggests the opposite: If you want to end up with a bipartisan result, the way to get there is to be as hard-nosed and partisan as Rahm’s detractors say he is. If anything, the White House should have been even more aggressive.
After all, much of the criticism Bush received was along these same lines. Shortly after the House passed his tax cut bill in March, 2001—on a party-line vote, after exactly one day of hearings—conservative Louisiana Senator John Breaux condemned the bare-knuckle tactics. "You can't talk about changing the way we do business in Washington and bringing about a spirit of bipartisan cooperation and then ram through a tax bill in the House," Breaux told The New York Times. "That's why we're not getting things done."
Old Washington hands like Breaux proclaimed that Bush would have to take a more conciliatory approach in the Senate, where the 50-50 partisan split supposedly made it impossible to stiff-arm Democrats. Bush wisely ignored the advice, resorting to a shrewd inside-outside game instead. Inside the hallowed Senate chamber, Republicans pressed ahead with their reconciliation plans. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott went so far as to sack the Senate parliamentarian—whom Republicans had hired back in 1995—after a ruling making it harder to pass the full tax cut package through reconciliation.
For his part, Bush kept the pressure on by constantly turning up in the backyards of red-state Democrats. Between his inauguration and early April, Bush held campaign-style events in some 22 states—including Maine, where he hoped to light a fire under the state’s moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. He ran ads on local radio stations and barraged voters with robo-calls. The Times accused him of “tactics reminiscent of President Bill Clinton's ‘permanent campaign.’” But when the Senate passed its budget resolution later that month—that is, the measure that instructs certain committees to write legislation that can’t be filibustered—it included an effective $1.2 trillion floor for his tax cut.
That’s when Democrats really started dealing. A group of moderates—including Max Baucus, Bob Torricelli, Ben Nelson, and Breaux, he of the delicate sensibilities—began trekking to the White House to negotiate an even higher amount. Bush, in his infinite generosity, said he knew he’d have to compromise between the $1.2 trillion figure, which massively exceeded every Democrat’s upper limit only a few months earlier, and his preferred $1.6 trillion price tag. In the end, Baucus hashed out a deal with his GOP counterpart on the Senate Finance Committee, Chuck Grassley, and Bush settled for a $1.35 trillion package whose benefits skewed heavily toward the wealthy. Even Democrats from such conservative strongholds as California (Dianne Feinstein) and Wisconsin (Herb Kohl) eventually got on board.
The reason all this worked is that, by casting his lot with reconciliation and ginning up support in the provinces, Bush made his tax cut seem inevitable. And once Democrats assumed they couldn’t stop it, many decided to take any deal they could get (however skimpy). By contrast, had Bush renounced reconciliation and tried to pass his bill in truly bipartisan fashion, Democrats would have had no incentive to engage. They would have known they could stuff him with a mere 40 votes.
The point is that when senators’ policy preferences collide with their political interests, they tend to vote the latter. The way to fix that isn’t to appeal to their conscience or their inner wonk, or even their appetite for pork. It’s to change their political calculus. By making passage inevitable, reconciliation stripped a prospective no-vote of its major political benefit (denying Bush a victory). And when Bush campaigned for the tax cuts in Democratic states, it created an affirmative reason to support them.
To be sure, the analogy to Obama and health care isn’t perfect. The White House probably couldn’t have used reconciliation from the get-go because only legislation with budget implications is officially eligible. That means Democrats may not have been able to pass their comprehensive bill this way, just health-care related subsidies and tax increases.
But, in a way, Rahm’s approach was the next best thing. The Senate Democrat quoted in The Hill complained that Rahm miscalculated by focusing narrowly on Snowe and Collins, the Senate’s most liberal Republicans. But that was exactly the right idea. By securing an additional Republican or two, the Democrats would have made health care look inevitable, which would have eliminated the chief political benefit to opposing it (i.e., roughing up Obama). If the White House made a mistake, it was by not pressuring senators in their home states, a la Bush. The inside game was right. It just wasn’t sufficient.
The upshot is that liberal use of reconciliation and other ostensible crimes against Senate protocol may be the Democrats’ best hope going forward. Moderates will complain that they risk a voter backlash by looking thuggish and partisan. But, as Bush showed, these tactics aren’t just a way to enact an agenda that the opposition is bent on blocking. They’re the most effective way to achieve bipartisanship in the process.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.