If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Barack Obama has been in the fast lane when it comes to bipartisanship. Now one year into his presidency, his near-pathological obsession with consensus has only served to resurrect a moribund GOP while leaving his agenda and his own party teetering on the brink.
Listened to Cheney, that is, not on national security, but on domestic politics.
Following the disputed 2000 election, the Bush-Cheney transition team prepared to assume the White House without either a popular vote mandate or dominant majorities in Congress. But while the mainstream media consensus concluded that a "weakened" President Bush would have to govern from the center and "build bridges to the opposition," Dick Cheney had a different idea. Especially when it came to the Republican ticket's radical plan of tax cuts for the economy, Cheney insisted:
"We don't negotiate with ourselves."
As Barton Gellman details in his book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, Dick Cheney made it abundantly clear that the Bush administration would put pedal to the metal in pursuit of its radical agenda. In a series of media appearances that December, Cheney proceeded as if the Florida recount and Bush v. Gore had never happened.
His December 3, 2000 exchange with the late Tim Russert on Meet the Press is particularly telling:
RUSSERT: Governor Bush and you campaigned on a platform of a $1.3 trillion tax cut. Now that the Senate is 50-50, Democrats-Republicans, and the Republicans control the House by eight or nine votes, won't you have to scale down your tax cut in order to pass it? [...] But, in reality, with a 50-50 Senate and a close, close, small majority in the House, you're going to have to have a moderate, mainstream, centrist governance, aren't you?
CHENEY: Oh, I think so. [...] But I think there's no reason in the world why we can't do exactly what Governor Bush campaigned on.
"As President-elect Bush has made very clear, he ran on a particular platform that was very carefully developed. It's his program, it's his agenda, and we have no intention at all of backing off of it. It's why we got elected.
So we're going to aggressively pursue tax changes, tax reform, tax cuts, because it's important to do so. [...] The suggestion that somehow, because this was a close election, we should fundamentally change our beliefs, I just think is silly."
When Gloria Borger interrupted to object that "with all due respect, the Democrats are saying that this administration cannot proceed as the Reagan administration did, for example, with a large tax bill, because you don't have the mandate that a Ronald Reagan.," Cheney fired back:
"There is no reason in the world, and I simply don't buy the notion, that somehow we come to office now as a, quote, 'weakened president.' [...] We've got a good program, and we're going to pursue it."
Which is exactly what transpired. By May 2001, President Bush and Vice President Cheney had their $1.35 trillion tax cut, courtesy of precisely the strategy Borger ridiculed as " cherry pick[ing] one or two Democrats here and there and get them to sign on to whatever tax bill you have."
But eight years later, Barack Obama did not follow the Bush-Cheney example.
As it turned out, the deadly combination of Obama's hands-off approach to legislation and unending appeasement of Republicans determined to destroy him was both futile and counterproductive.
The $787 billion stimulus package was unnecessarily laden with tax breaks and watered down, much smaller than the $1.2 trillion his team believed it needed to be. And for all of Obama's outreach to Republicans, they thanked him with zero votes in the House and near-total opposition in the Senate. And as Bill Kristol confidently predicted in February, it only served to mobilize the Party of No for the future:
"But the loss of credibility, even if they jam it through, really hurts them on the next, on the next piece of legislation. Clinton got through his tax increases in '93, it was such a labor and he had to twist so many arms to do it and he became so unpopular...
...That it made, that it made it so much easier to then defeat his health care initiative. So, it's very important for Republicans who think they're going to have to fight later on on health care, fight later on maybe on some of the bank bailout legislation, fight later on on all kinds of issues. It's very important for them, I think, not just to stay united at this time, though that's important, but to make the arguments."
Instead of kicking them when they were down, Obama offered bruised and battered Republicans a hand up. In return, they gutted his stimulus program and stonewalled his health care plan. As this week's disaster in Massachusetts showed, Obama's good intentions helped a flat-lining Republican Party get off the mat and imperil the Democratic program.
Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist saw in all coming. On January 5th, 2009, he predicted what would come to pass in an early statement of Krugman's Law. For all of his goodwill, White House meetings, compromises and lofty rhetoric, the new President would - and did - get the back of the hand from Republicans:
"Look, Republicans are not going to come on board. Make 40% of the package tax cuts, they'll demand 100%. Then they'll start the thing about how you can't cut taxes on people who don't pay taxes (with only income taxes counting, of course) and demand that the plan focus on the affluent. Then they'll demand cuts in corporate taxes. And Mitch McConnell is already saying that state and local governments should get loans, not aid - which would undermine that part of the plan, too."
And as I've previously suggested, there is also Krugman's Corollary. Fearful of a Democratic majority for years to come, Republicans are afraid not that Barack Obama's economic recovery and health care initiatives will fail, but that they might succeed. Or as Krugman put it on January 26th:
"Conservatives really, really don't want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don't want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending."
Which is exactly right. Barack Obama was well-meaning and sincere on bipartisanship and "changing the tone" in Washington. But in producing both suboptimal public policy and a politically reinvigorated Republican Party, Obama's good faith ultimately resulted in the worst of all worlds. Just as Paul Krugman warned.
And of all people, Barack Obama should have listened to Dick Cheney.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)