There's nothing unfair about this question, raised by David Ignatius in today's Washington Post:
If Obama truly intends to unite America across party lines and break the Washington logjam, then why has he shown so little interest or aptitude for the hard work of bipartisan government?
Ignatius says that this is the real "Where's the beef" question when it comes to the Obama campaign. And, considering that the candidate has pitched himself as one who will successfully fight government dysfunction to forge an environment where comity rules, it's one that deserves answers. I'm not sure, however, that Ignatius isn't just ignoring information that could help fill in those gaps. Moreover, I'm quite certain he's badly overselling John McCain's ability in the same arena.
Does Obama have what it takes to forge the across-the-aisle alliances he offers the American people? Ignatius says the "record is mixed," and he's backed up by a raft of sources-without-names. According to Ignatius, "what stands out in his brief Senate career is his liberal voting record, not a history of fighting across party lines to get legislation passed." At the same time, he doesn't seem to raise too many objections to the evidence the Obama campaign has provided him, attesting that the candidate is, at least, somewhat true to his word:
The Obama campaign sent me an eight-page summary of his "bipartisan accomplishments," and it includes some encouraging examples of working across the aisle on issues such as nuclear proliferation, energy, veterans affairs, budget earmarks and ethics reforms. So the cupboard isn't bare. It's just that, unlike McCain, Obama bears no obvious political scars for fighting bipartisan battles that were unpopular with his party's base.
We'll return to the notion of McCain and his scars in a minute. First, let's ask if there's more in the larder than Ignatius lets on. My question: why confine ourselves to Obama's brief Senate career? If we allow ourselves to imagine that a serious world exists outside of the Senate, where a candidate's mettle may be tested, you'll find some riveting examples of Obama coming through with his coalition building.
One defining example can be found in New York Magazine's excellent article on the early experiences of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, titled, "When They Were Young." During Obama's career at Harvard Law, he took on the leadership of the Law Review during a time when the department was wracked with tumult and fractiousness. The article makes no bones about Obama's ambitions, but it should not be ignored that his chief success during this time was taming the departmental dysfunction and maintaining an environment of concord, even if his fellow lefties didn't always appreciate it:
But Berenson and the conservatives were correct in their assessment of Obama. He appointed members of the right-leaning caucus to high positions. "He genuinely cared what conservatives had to say and what they thought," says Berenson. He also injected a dose of humility into a pathologically self-serious environment. One editor recalls, "When people would have debates over nitpicky things, he would say, 'Just remember, folks, nobody reads it.' "
Not everyone was entirely pleased with Obama's tenure. Among those on the left, there was anger over his conservative appointments. "He's willing to talk to [the conservatives] and he has a grasp of where they are coming from, which is something a lot of blacks don't have and don't care to have," Christine Lee, a black editor, told the Los Angeles Times in the spring of 1990. "His election was significant at the time, but now it's meaningless because he's becoming just like all the others."
With the benefit of hindsight, however, it's clear that Obama saved the law review from descending into self-destructive factionalism and fury.
Another fine example that Ignatius should familiarize himself with is the role Obama took on in the Illinois legislature to achieve some measure of reform of the death penalty laws. Obama managed to balance the interests of rival political factions, activists, and police in arriving at a piece of legislation that won unanimous support. Author Scott Turow gave Obama high marks for the effort: "Without Barack's energy, imagination and commitment I do not believe the very substantial and meaningful reforms that became law in Illinois would have taken place."
Whether these examples help to form a convincing case, is, naturally, up to the voters to decide. But they deserve inclusion in the discussion, and it is, at first blush, curious that they don't make it into Ignatius' brief. Perhaps the problem Ignatius has is that these aren't examples that yield the "scarring" that Ignatius seems to prize.
That's probably why McCain gets the highest marks from Ignatius, but it's a manifestly strange premise on which to base such praise. McCain's obviously "mavericked" his way to a point where his own fellow conservatives harbor a deep distrust of him. Is that supposed to be a good thing? Is it preferable to leave and receive "scars" as a part of the process of governance?
Ignatius holds out McCain's participation in the "Gang of 14" (which Obama played no role in) as a fitting example of McCain's bridge-building, but you'll have to forgive me if I don't see that example as the model of decorum and tranquility that Ignatius makes it out to be. If memory serves me right, the chief achievement of the Gang of 14 was to talk the Republican leadership down off a ledge, where they were prepared to use the so-called "nuclear option" in disallowing the organized filibuster of judicial nominees. That mission was accomplished. But the Gang of 14 can hardly be said to have solved the underlying problem at hand - the lack of an environment in which judicial nominees could be debated in a way deemed fair by all participants.
McCain of course, would likely say that this wasn't the goal of the Gang of 14 - but that's all the more damning, isn't it? That one would prize mere parliamentary expedience above the actual solution to a problem, and then expect to be rewarded for it with the presidency? It's a thin brief, to be sure. But more to the point: if the Ignatius/McCain model of "bipartisan cooperation" is one in which his fellows are left strong-armed and scarred in the name of half-measures, Obama's supporters should be thankful that his cupboard is bereft of such examples.
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