01/31/2009 11:26 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bipartisanship and Playing Games

Cross-posted at OpenLeft

I love Nancy Pelosi's reaction to Republican whining about her not giving them more of what they wanted: she said:

I didn't come here to be partisan. I didn't come here to be bipartisan. I came here, as did my colleagues, to be nonpartisan, to work for the American people, to do what is in their interest... We reached out to the Republicans all along the way. And they know it... They just didn't have the ideas that had the support of the majority of the people in the Congress.

You tell them, Madam Speaker!

And did you notice that the Republicans were telling the press that Obama's concilliatory gestures actually emboldened them to all vote against the bill in the House? Now I'm sure they are saying that in part to embarrass and mess with him, and to try and drive a wedge between him and House Dems, so we shouldn't take them too seriously. But if this is how House Republicans want to play it, that's just fine: they can be the most powerless and impotent political force in America. No problem at all.

The important questions now are this:

1. Do all of Obama's post-partisan gestures help him with Snowe, Collins, Voinovich, Specter, and other stray Republicans in the Senate on key votes? If so, terrific. The danger is that they will dig in even more, but I can also see this kind of outreach helping at times.

2. Who ends up looking worse and better in all this in terms of the general public and the media? Obama is getting points for the gestures, but panned for their ineffectiveness. Republicans look stubborn and petty for not cooperating, but get bolstered by their base. Congressional Democrats are looking more partisan, but also tough and effective. The biggest danger in my mind is that the media, in their worship of bipartisanship, will really start hammering Congressional Democrats. Progressives need to be full tilt ahead in defending our Congressional Dem friends from this line of attack. And President Obama should not get in the triangulation trap, because what that delivered for Clinton was his own personal survival, but in every election while he was President, the Republicans won the majority in Congress, allowing him to get very little important done in his Presidency.

The games have begun. As I've written before, I have no problem with Obama's symbolic post-partisan outreach, as long as it doesn't translate into mush for policy. What he shouldn't do is allow Republicans and the media to work together in this game to define not getting GOP votes as failure. What is failure is failing to pass big change legislation.

As to the worship of bipartisanship, I talk in my book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, about how absurd that is from a historical perspective. Jefferson got no support at all from the Federalists for his reforms that set America on a stable course. Andy Jackson got no support from the Whigs for most of his economic and expanding voting rights policies. Lincoln got exactly zero support in the 1860s for his policies. FDR got exactly zero Republican votes in the House, and only one in the Senate (the great George Norris from the great state of Nebraska) for most of the New Deal. The only times bipartisanship was helpful in passing big positive changes in this country were in Teddy Roosevelt's era, when he broke away from the vast majority of his own party to support some great progressive reforms, and in the 1960s when some northern liberal Republicans helped Democratic Presidents and Congressional leadership overcome southern filibusters on civil rights. (Most of the heirs of those northern liberal Republicans are now Dems, while the heirs of the Southern pro-segregationists are pretty much all Republican.)

If you want a great take on the worship of bipartisan centrism, check out Thomas Frank's great Wall Street Journal column, "Obama Should Act Like He Won". In the meantime, enjoy the games: they've just begun.