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They Won't Play Ball With the New Boy

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Political history is coming round again, an almost eerie replay of a new Democratic president's struggles to reach across the aisle to Republicans in Congress. Sixteen years since summer 1993, President Obama is getting the same results President Clinton achieved on bipartisanship: too much of nothing.

And I mean nothing. Not one Republican voted with Obama in the House; not one Republican in the House or Senate supported Clinton's budget bill, a progressive measure that paid down the deficit and paved the way for economic prosperity in just a few years. Once is wrong; twice is a world full of trouble for them.

That pattern needs to be remembered right about now. Unruly congressional Republicans are not going to play ball with the new boy. They will not give him a courtesy bipartisan bill, no matter how worthy the cause. They will not deal in good faith and there is nothing they would like better than to ruin Obama's day -- or presidency. In the Senate, it is much the same, despite their better manners. Whether there are a handful of exceptions in the "upper chamber" remains to be seen in coming days.

As his emergency economic stimulus plan lumbers from the House to the Senate floor, President Obama should keep in mind that Clinton faced cliffhanger votes on a desperately needed early piece of economic legislation. And he won, just barely. The vote was 218-216 in the House. If he had lost one Hamlet-like Democrat in the Senate, like the wavering Sen. Bob Kerrey, his White House aides believed that would spell failure for his entire presidency, not just the bill.

Giving opponents a fresh slate and the benefit of the doubt, Obama did his best to woo and win over the House Republicans. Paying them a call at the Capitol, he treated them as men of reason. That was his first mistake. Or perhaps he knew he had nothing to lose by trying and the American people would respect him for that. Maybe all he hopes is to keep things civil. On that point, he won, yet seized the chance to remind them in plain English, "I won," as in the election.

Obama and his band of brothers and sisters need to drill down that point, that this election was a cry for change. The only way House Republicans are going to cooperate with his ambitious agenda is if they're scared or shamed into it. Clinton did not make his opponents regret their votes. Too many loved to hate him, almost from the start, in a particularly vengeful form of partisanship.

Now comes the truly strange circle of history: the role of radio talk meister Rush Limbaugh is still fixed like a star in the sky. As a reporter in my impressionable days in 1994, I witnessed how much power and influence the right-wing talk show host wields over House Republicans. This was a dinner gathering of the class of 1994 at Baltimore's Camden Yards -- remember the Republican revolution and takeover?

I will never forget the encomiums thrown Rush's way, the fervent thanks, the triumphal ceremony naming him the class mascot. Every new Republican House member elected that fall believed Rush made a difference. Not in a fun frothy way, but in a real sense of delivering a certain class of voters -- shall we say angry white males? ---to the polls.

That evening was one of the most sobering sights of my career, an epiphany that explained how so many seats changed overnight. The other man of the hour at the time, former Speaker Newt Gingrich was a will-o'-the-wisp compared to Limbaugh and his staying power.

That is to say, Limbaugh is not just a part of the media chattering class; he is a key player in the political class, a shrewd maestro of sorts. He has politicians seeking his grace and favor; in fact, there may be more to fear from him than the pleasant chap who just moved in down the street on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Know your audience, President Obama. With House Republicans, your audience is (and was) all about "No."

Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist in Washington.