Hertzberg: Obama's Bipartisan Outreach "Gandhian Hardball"

03/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hendrik Hertzberg has a piece up in the New Yorker about the efforts undertaken by the White House to place a bipartisan sheen on the stimulus package. Hertzberg offers the briefest of blow-by-blows, and notes -- in my estimation correctly -- that the outreach effort yielded significant gains beyond the paucity of Republican support the stimulus package received:

A Gallup poll taken last week found twenty-eight per cent of Republican voters (and fifty-six per cent of independents) backing the stimulus. It had the support not only of the labor federations but also of the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States Chamber of Commerce. And four Republican governors--California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, Connecticut's Jodi Rell, Florida's Charlie Crist, and Vermont's Jim Douglas--joined fifteen of their Democratic colleagues in signing a letter calling for its enactment. A Republican governor, you might say, is sort of like a Republican congressman--except with actual responsibilities.

All of which is nice, especially now that Obama is recharacterizing -- or perhaps simply returning to an old characterization -- his plans to reach out to the opposing party a long-term effort that gradually "changes the tone" in Washington.

Hertzberg ends his piece with this exploded metaphor:

Fifty years ago, the civil-rights movement understood that nonviolence can be an effective weapon even if--or especially if--the other side refuses to follow suit. Obama has a similarly tough-minded understanding of the political uses of bipartisanship, which, even if it fails as a tactic for compromise, can succeed as a tonal strategy: once the other side makes itself appear intransigently, destructively partisan, the game is half won. Obama is learning to throw the ball harder. But it's not Rovian hardball he's playing. More like Gandhian hardball.

And that's neat-o, sure. But before we get too wrapped up in the Moebius strip that is bipartisanship-is-an-end-in-itself, let's remember that all the Gandhian hardball in the world isn't worth a hill of beans if it results in bad policy. If I had to review the effect of bipartisan outreach on the stimulus bill, I'm forced to conclude that it resulted in a weaker bill. No one will much care about the skillful way you demonstrated the intransigence of your opponent if you've allowed the economy to collapse in the meantime. That's playing for the consolation prize. If anything, Obama's got to have a new strategy toward outreach in the future. Less of this:

OBAMA: We want your input on the stimulus package. We're looking to ramp up infrastructure spending.

GOP: We'd rather you cut taxes.

OBAMA: I'll see if I can accommodate you.

And more of this:

OBAMA: We want your input on the stimulus package. We're looking to ramp up infrastructure spending.

GOP: We'd rather you cut taxes.

OBAMA: Well, I won the election and we're going to ramp up infrastructure spending. So that's a no on tax cuts, but I don't want your state to fall through the cracks here, so what can we build?

Ultimately, Obama may not get a single additional vote -- and, as we've seen in the Curious Case of Congressman Mica, the GOP members are going to take their money and the credit no matter how they vote. So, to my mind, forget the chess, and bring me a better bill.