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Obama Had To Try Bipartisanship This Time -- Next Time Will Be Different

01/28/2009 10:33 pm 22:33:41 | Updated May 25, 2011

So let's get this straight. House Republicans don't care if their constituents have their TV cut off as a result of the mass confusion surrounding the conversion to digital television. How else to explain that only 22 of their number voted to extend the conversion deadline from Feb. 17, as it is now, to June 13? Given that the Senate had already passed the extension, it seems like a no-brainer, as it were.

And yet, rather than make sure that the people in their districts would not have to contend with snowed-out TV, 155 House Republicans wanted more to embarrass President Obama, who had endorsed the transition.

It's one thing for the Republicans to withhold their votes completely from a massive stimulus package, even one that could put lots of people back to work. It's quite another rather cavalierly to throw the TV watching habits of millions of Americans to the wind on a political lark.

That's the game the Republicans have chosen to play, along with 13 Democrats, primarily the self-indulgent Blue Dogs from rural districts. The bill actually got more votes than needed for passage under normal procedures, but the House leadership rationally figured that no one would vote against TV for their constituents like Health Shuler (BD-NC) or Charlie Melancon (BD-LA). Guess they don't watch TV in Asheville or in Bayou Lafourche, right? So the leadership put the bill on what's called the "suspension calendar," meaning it needed a two-third vote to pass. Despite the 258 votes in favor, that total wasn't enough to ensure passage. Rest assured, the bill will be back under regular order, and will pass. It will be interesting to see how many of those who voted against it this time will do so again.

The vote on TV was instructive, because if the Republicans (and those self-righteous Blue Dogs) will vote against TV, they will vote against anything. Heck, the vote on the stimulus package was probably easier for them than the TV vote.

If nothing else, the votes this week presented a clear road map to Obama and to the American people. A presidential term is a marathon, not a sprint, so it's tempting to see the decisions Obama made to try to get Republican support in a short-term framework. Kicking out family planning angered a lot of women, a key constituency for the Democratic party. Putting in more non-productive tax cuts angered a lot of progressives.

But Obama had to play the hand this way this time. After talking about the need for post-partisanship and bipartisanship, he had to go up to Capitol Hill, make concessions to the Republicans and the Blue Dogs, and then watch all of the Republicans vote against him. They said they liked Obama, of course, it was the nasty House Democrat leadership that the Republicans don't like. Nonsense. Voting against the plan was a vote against Obama, as much as it was one against Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Now the game has changed. Obama knows he can't trust the Republicans. Their idea of bipartisanship is someone going along with their bad ideas, like privatizing Social Security or giving tax cuts to the rich. Any resistance is attacked as playing politics, or partisan behavior. Obama can't event trust the Blue Dogs, some of whom owe their seats to Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff who recruited them when heading up the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. One Blue Dog veteran, Rep. Jim Cooper (BD-TN), extracted a promise for a fiscal responsibility summit, then voted against the stimulus package anyway. Is that promise still good? Perhaps Cooper's invite to the summit could get lost in that balky White House email system.

Now Obama can go to the American people and say, "I tried." I tried to go the extra mile, tried to make compromises to get a bill, tried to be bipartisan within the context of an election which Democrats won. And what did I get? Literally, nothing. Not one Republican vote. Not one. They resurrected the 1993 playbook when the Democrats had to rescue the economy from the first George Bush without one Republican vote and lost Congress as a result.

That playbook is sadly out of date. Obama isn't Bill Clinton. His mandate is more solid, his popularity more assured. If the Democratic National Committee manages to create the Organizing for America operation from the Obama campaign, and works it well, a new era of participatory democracy will descend on Capitol Hill and the Republicans won't like it. Obama will be less likely to make concessions to anger core constituencies as well, and that will be for the better because, as he put it, "I won." The Republicans who spent much of the debate on the stimulus package complaining about the spending in the bill (and making the same argument on the digital TV transition) also bear the responsibility for turning the $127 billion surplus they inherited from Bill Clinton into deficits beyond description through their own tax cuts and wasteful spending.

The Blue Dogs also will have to watch themselves as Obama's policies become more popular and they strive to keep their distance, even while campaigning on his popularity in 2010 in some of those states that went for the president last year.

This revolution will be televised, whether on TV or on the Internet, and the Republicans and their Blue Dog buddies won't be able to stop it.

(Note: These views do not reflect those of Public Knowledge)