Last week, President Barack Obama spoke at town-hall meetings in cities hit hard by the recession. With only one exception -- a woman who thought Mr. Obama needed to have a beer with Sean Hannity -- the questions the president received in these places were all concerned with bread-and-butter economic issues: mortgage problems, funding for education, and the difficulties of low-wage work.
Over the weekend, after Congress had approved a massive economic stimulus package, it was the news media's turn to ask the questions. Here, a different concern permeated the discussion: The nation's desperate need for bipartisanship, and the president's failure to usher in a new era of brotherly love between Republicans and Democrats.
It is always a disappointment to turn from forthright consideration of some subject -- whether from the left or the right, a poet or a plumber -- to the Beltway version, in which the only aspects of the issue that matter are the effects it will have on the fortunes of the two parties and the various men in power. Today, though, with the nation facing the deepest economic crisis in decades, there is something particularly perverse about the Washington way.
We are watching industries crumble, Wall Street firms disappear, unemployment spike, and unprecedented government intervention. And our designated opinion leaders want to know: Is Obama up this week? Is he down? And is his leadership style more like Bill Clinton's, or Abraham Lincoln's?
Above all else stands the burning question of bipartisanship. Whatever else the politicians might say they're about, our news analysts know that this is the true object of the nation's desire, the topic to which those slippery presidential spokesmen need always to be dragged back.
When last week's passage of the gigantic stimulus package is judged in this light, only one verdict is possible: Obama failed to deliver. He talked big about reaching out to Republicans, and yet he received only three votes from them in the Senate, and none in the House. Yes, the bill passed, but what a disaster!
Let's admit the obvious. Promises to get beyond partisanship are the most perfunctory sort of campaign rhetoric, almost as empty as the partisanship itself.
For the Beltway commentariat, however, transcending partisanship is the most meaningful of issues, more important, one senses, than the economic problems that trouble those people at town-hall meetings. "Nothing was more central to [Obama's] victory last fall than his claim that he could break the partisan gridlock in Washington," wrote the Washington Post's David Broder a few weeks ago, in an altogether typical expression of media perceptions.
The way I remember it, the No. 1 issue in the election was the collapsing economy, followed at some distance by the Iraq war. On both of these questions, Mr. Obama prevailed because he was the candidate who promised most convincingly to reverse Republican policies -- not because he planned to meet the GOP halfway across the charred ruins of American prosperity.
The reason the Washington media think bipartisanship is the top issue, even when economic disaster stomps Americans like Godzilla, is because of the way it reflects their own professional standards. They are themselves technically impartial, and so it's only natural for them to wish for a hazy millennium in which everyone else in Washington is impartial, too.
It is supposed to be high-minded stuff, this longing for a bipartisan golden age. But in some ways it is the most cynical stance possible. It takes no idea seriously, since everything is up for compromise. The role of the political parties is merely to cancel each other out, so that only the glorious centrists remain, triangulating majestically between obnoxious extremes.
What's more, bipartisanship's boosters can't even discern friend from foe. The Republican caucus in the House of Representatives, which seems to be growing even more conservative as its numbers shrink, has clearly resumed the strategies of the early Gingrich era -- obstruction, bomb-throwing and more obstruction. But to the mainstream media, the angry Republican pols seem to mainly discredit Mr. Obama, who failed to win over the GOP. Which will, of course, encourage the bitter-enders to obstruct even more.
Never has Beltway orthodoxy looked as clueless and futile as it does today. Confronted with the greatest failure of economic ideas in decades, it demands that the president make common cause with people for whom those failed ideas are still sacred. To think we can solve our problems in this way is like hoping to chart a route to the moon by water.
Thomas Frank's column, The Tilting Yard, appears every Wednesday at OpinionJournal.com
Also in Opinion Journal:
Bill Bradley: Five Ways to Restore Financial Trust
John Fund: Arlen's Fatal Stimulus