02/12/2009 01:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Post-Partisanship": How It Works, How It Doesn't

Then President-elect Barack Obama, delivering his victory speech, stressed post-partisan themes.

Back in 2007, when he was still an underdog candidate for president jousting with John Edwards (remember him?), Barack Obama said that he liked the "post-partisan" posturings of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the idea that people should set aside their partisan differences to solve big issues. Now, as president, he's adopted much the same tack, to the dismay of hyper-partisans of all stripes.

They ought to be dismayed, because it works. To a point.

But not in a linear sense.

Let's take a look at how it went in California, and how it may go in Washington.

Schwarzenegger was coming off of a total disaster in 2005, his so-called "Year of Reform" in which all four of his special election initiatives, alternately badly drafted or just too conservative for California, went down to defeat. In 2006, running for re-election with a new team -- including campaign manager Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain's much more conservative campaign last fall -- Schwarzenegger went back to the centrist positioning that got him elected in the first place in the dramatic California recall election of 2003. He had early in his term formed a post-partisan partnership on some issues with then state Controller Steve Westly, later one of Obama's earliest and biggest backers. But that fell by the wayside in 2005.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signing California's big climate change program into law, in this New West Notes video.

He pushed two big things he had talked about with me and others before he ever ran for governor in 2002 and 2003: A big infrastructure package and a big program to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of making enemies of Democratic legislative leaders like then Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and state Senate leader Don Perata, he formed a partnership with them.

And it worked. The big programs passed, the public loved the new air of cooperation in the state capital of Sacramento, and Schwarzenegger won a second landslide election to the governorship.

Of course, only a few Republicans went along with the bipartisan game. The big infrastructure package, which won big at the polls in November 2006 along with Schwarzenegger, received only a few votes from Republican legislators. The big climate change program, also very popular, garnered only one Republican vote.

After Schwarzegger was re-elected, polls showed that the public loved the idea of what Schwarzenegger began to call "post-partisanship," and was optimistic that the new spirit would lead to more constructive changes in state government.

Schwarzenegger kept up the positive rhetoric, which most Republican voters liked, but the reality was that there were precious few moderate Republicans to be found in the Legislature. Partisan gerrymandering, in which the legislative parties essentially draw their members' districts, and the domination of Republican politics in California by professional conservatives concentrates the power of the far right in the party, yet in a declining number of districts. So it's no surprise that, aside from Schwarzenegger, almost all California Republicans are far too conservative to win a statewide election. (Schwarzenegger, incidentally, finally succeeded in passing a redistricting reform initiative last November, but it won't go into effect until the next Census.)

This wasn't a problem for Schwarzenegger's post-partisanship on most issues, because they didn't require Republican votes in a Legislature with big Democratic majorities in both houses.

It has proved to be a problem on the state budget, chronically balanced only with borrowing and sleight of hand after the Legislature took on unsustainable spending commitments and tax cuts during the dot-com boom and Schwarzenegger's subsequent cutting of the car tax, now wildly out of balance with the advent of the economic crisis.

California is one of only three states, and the only major state, to require a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature to pass a budget or raise taxes. The far right faction that controls the Republican Party has blocked passage of a budget with needed new revenues for months. So every day in California politics has become Groundhog Day.

Schwarzenegger remained popular through 2007 as he unsuccessfully pursued a comprehensive health care reform program for California, working with some unions and businesses, even though no Republican legislator ended up supporting it. He might have gotten some Republican support for lesser parts of the package, but kept pushing for the whole enchilada.

His popularity began fading after that, then went down with the Groundhog Day budget situation that developed last year and the tanking of the economy.

Obama actually has a better situation because he has strong majorities with his own party and doesn't need a two-thirds vote to get anything done.

But the reality is that the national Republican Party now mirrors the California Republican Party. It's a minority party busy digging its own minority hole.

President Barack Obama called out conservative Republican opponents of his economic recovery program.

It's no real surprise that few Republicans in Congress are backing Obama's big economic revival program. It's a very conservative group of people.

Especially so after the last two elections. In 2006 and 2008, the Republicans lost a whopping 52 seats in the House of Representatives and 14 seats in the Senate.

This is a party that is burning down to the waterline, its leaders waving a tattered standard of conservatism. That's especially so in the House, where members represent gerrymandered districts.

In the Senate, there are still a few relatively moderate Republicans, who after all have to represent the broader interests of entire states.

Schwarzenegger hasn't had that in California, having to get votes from Republicans who only represent safe legislative districts.

So Obama will have a few Republican partners, at least on a situational basis, in the Senate. Where he will need them on occasion, due to the possibility of filibuster in the Senate, which does not exist in the House.

Then President-elect Barack Obama delivered this video address to a bipartisan global climate summit organized by Schwarzenegger.

He'll have some Republican partners amongst the nation's governors as well.

Schwarzenegger and Florida's Charlie Crist led a group of Republican governors who signed a letter last week backing Obama's economic recovery program. And Crist actually appeared with Obama at his town hall meeting in Florida on

But the reality is that post-partisanship will be what Obama says it is -- some big issues that are widely popular -- so long as he can get some of those Republicans to go along when he needs them.

As long as Obama maintains his post-partisan positioning, he further marginalizes the conservative Republicans in Congress who would never be for him or anything major that he proposes anyway. Except in the event of an extraterrestrial invasion of the Earth, that is. And even then, I'm not so sure.