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By Jay Cost

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The President Blames Republicans for the Partisan Blame Game

John Dickerson had an interesting column in Slate today, reviewing the Obama administration's commitment to bipartisanship. He writes:

[A]fter 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.

I have two huge problems with the White House's claim.

The first is timing. What came first: the GOP twice voting against the stimulus bill or "Obama aides...paint[ing] Republicans as either irrelevant or ridiculous?"

The answer is the Obama administration. We saw it in the President's first prime time press conference, which occurred in between the two stimulus votes. During that presser, Obama frequently mischaracterized the Republican position.

There is also the issue of the Rush Limbaugh marginalization strategy, which the White House was coordinating as part of a broader "message war." President Obama employed that strategy in his first week in office:

President Obama warned Republicans on Capitol Hill today that they need to quit listening to radio king Rush Limbaugh if they want to get along with Democrats and the new administration.

"You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done," he told top GOP leaders, whom he had invited to the White House to discuss his nearly $1 trillion stimulus package.

This seemed like a strange, unguarded comment at the time. In light of what we have since learned, we can understand it as the opening salvo of a broader political attack on the GOP - as the Administration worked to equate congressional Republicans with Limbaugh, after the latter made controversial comments about hoping the President would fail.

Second, the argument that nay votes necessarily imply "bad faith" is untenable. It is straight out of the same ad hominem playbook the White House has been using for months: if you disagree with us, there must be something wrong with you.

Let's grant for the sake of argument that some portion of the Republican caucus voted nay because they were behaving in "bad faith."

How does this account for the fact that all Republicans but three voted nay? The nay voters included moderate Republicans in both chambers: senators like Richard Lugar, George Voinovich, Lisa Murkowski, and Charles Grassley; representatives like Chris Smith, Frank LoBiondo, Dave Reichert, and Frank Mike Castle. Also voting nay were famed bipartisan compromisers like senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain (both of whom were part of the Gang of 14), and Orrin Hatch. Judd Gregg was of sufficient good faith to be offered the Commerce Department - but not anymore, I suppose.

What has induced the White House to draw this conclusion? Apparently, it was because the Administration was rebuffed in its initial overtures. Writes Dickerson:

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).

And yet they received minimal GOP support. So, Republicans must be acting in bad faith.

Hmmm...I'm suddenly reminded of a passage from the Audacity of Hope, about phony bipartisanship:

The majority party can begin every negotiation by asking for 100 percent of what it wants, go on to concede 10 percent, and then accuse any member of the minority party who fails to support this "compromise" of being "obstructionist."

This Obama has a valid point. Simply because the Democrats included measures in the bill that Republicans wanted does not morally require them to vote for it. As a former legislator, the President surely knows this.

Suppose that a Republican legislator is solely interested in policy outcomes, and plans to vote in good faith. The Democrats propose an initial stimulus bill, which includes a mix of tax cuts and spending increases, and an alternative that includes a few, modest concessions to the GOP. She's asked to arbitrate between the two Democratic alternatives and the status quo. Which will she choose?

We might graphically represent her decision calculus this way:

Hypothetical Stimulus Vote.jpg

The legislator's goal here is to select the option (bill 1, bill 2, or the status quo) that minimizes the distance from her ideal point, which is not a practical option now that she is in the minority. What's her rational choice? The status quo. It's the shortest distance from her ideal.

None of this is to say that Republicans don't have a hand in the early, ugly death of Obama's post-partisan world. They certainly do. Yet in my assignment of blame, I'm handing out the lion's share to the President. He is the one who - despite having the fewest credentials of any President in the modern era - decided he should be the next Commander-in-Chief. His core justification for running despite having such little relevant experience was that he had diagnosed the country's real problem - our petty, polarized politics - and that he could move us beyond it. Far from transcending it, as he promised, he has simply inverted it. It's politics as usual - only now with a Democratic aggressor who rams through highly partisan legislation and then castigates the Republican minority as disingenuous hacks.

I agree with Dickerson that the President won't pay a political price, at least for now. But Republicans are going to remember the President's approach. Right now, they are not a force to be reckoned with. However, if history is any guide, the current lopsided Democratic majorities are outliers that will be "corrected" sooner or later. That's not to say that Republicans are destined to reclaim the majority anytime soon, but only that their numbers will increase, and they'll again have a greater hand in legislative negotiations.

In the short term, the President might score some political points by doing what he once decried while claiming it is the Republicans who are the "same old same old." But in the long run? This kind of sharp elbows approach is how grudges are formed. That can be a problem if your vision of a permanent majority is fleeting, and you someday find yourself surrounded by your suddenly numerous political rivals, who resent you because you kicked them when they were down.

Just ask George W. Bush.

-Jay Cost