04/08/2012 09:32 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2012

What Bipartisanship Looks Like

A couplet keeps running through my head, a sinister variation on the chants from the Madison sit-ins and Zuccotti Park:

Tell me what Bipartisanship looks like
This is what Bipartisanship looks like

This past week, it looked like the JOBS Act. That's the legislation that sailed through Congress making it easier for investment bankers and start-ups to sell shares of stock to a gullible public without making the usual SEC disclosures, much less following the anti-fraud requirements of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Its Wall Street and Silicon Valley sponsors baptized it the JOBS Act, a contrived acronym for Jumpstart Our Business Startups -- claiming that it would increase jobs. An ill-timed scandal involving accounting misrepresentations by Groupon in its stock pitch nearly rained on the JOBS Act's parade. But President Obama signed the Act anyway, in a display of... bipartisanship.

Obama, in a Rose Garden ceremony, called it a "game changer" that would promote hiring by small businesses. More likely, it will promote stock frauds.

Leading GOP legislators were on hand to cheer for Obama's support for Republican legislation. Standing behind Obama was House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a sponsor of the Act, who has blocked just about everything else Obama has proposed.

So this is what bipartisanship looks like. All Democrats have to do is embrace Republican ideology and -- voila! -- bipartisanship.

In this case, Silicon Valley Democrats helped, too. According to the Wall Street Journal, in a now-it-can-be-told piece, a venture capitalist named Kate Mitchell, a Democratic campaign donor, worked behind the scenes with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Republican House Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bacchus to shelter small (under a billion dollars!) companies from the disclosure and reporting requirements that protect investors.

Seeing a way both to ingratiate the White House with the business elite and to cheer Wall Street and Silicon Valley donors, Obama jumped on board. Once the White House signaled that Obama would sign it, most Democrats got out of the way.

This is what bipartisanship looks like.

No serious person thinks waivers from disclosure and accounting rules will generate many jobs. Mainly, they will further deregulate Wall Street and help inflate the next financial market bubble.

Meanwhile, in the tally of jobs, as opposed to JOBS, the economy is not generating nearly enough new employment opportunities. The March jobs numbers, released Friday by the Labor Department, were a disappointment across the board. The economy generated just 120,000 jobs last month, about a third of the rate of job creation we need to get back to full employment.

The recovery is stuck in second gear because of flat or declining consumer purchasing power, the continuing drag of the housing and mortgage mess, and the fact that banks would rather speculate in securities than lend to Main Street businesses. None of this has anything to do with the burden of honest bookkeeping on start-ups.

What else does bipartisanship look like? It looks like premature deficit reduction that will only retard the recovery further.

According to two authoritative reconstructions of the aborted budget negotiations between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama, which repeatedly fell apart at the eleventh hour, Obama was ready to concede cuts in Social Security and steep retrenchment in domestic spending in order to claim bragging rights on deeper deficit reduction. Only Boehner's refusal to commit to even modest tax increases on the rich saved Obama from himself.

There have been several near misses on this front, including the bipartisan and deeply conservative Bowles-Simpson Commission, and a budget grand bargain trading Social Security and Medicare cuts for tax increases that was supposed to resolve last summer's contrived crisis on extending the debt ceiling.

One of these days, there will be a "bipartisan" (i.e. mostly Republican) budget deal that needlessly sacrifices Social Security and hobbles the recovery.

So this is what bipartisanship looks like: Give the Republicans nearly all of what they want, and they will grace your Rose Garden signing ceremony. All you need do is cut the heart out of what Democrats believe in and what the country needs.

Happily, there is an election this fall. And on alternate days of the week, President Obama seems to be realizing that appeasing the far right is a fool's errand and rediscovering his inner partisan. Here's what the president said of Rep. Paul Ryan's draconian budget plan:

It is "so far to the right," Obama said, that it makes the 1994 Republican-sponsored Contract with America "look like the New Deal."

"What drags down our entire economy is when there's an ever-widening chasm between the ultra-rich and everybody else,'' Obama added, at his luncheon speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "In this country, broad-based prosperity has never trickled-down from the success of a wealthy few. It has always come from the success of a strong and growing middle class."

(Tell me what leadership looks like.) This is what leadership looks like.

Given the Republican strategy of take-no-prisoners, the only bipartisanship is capitulation. It's hard to tack back and forth between leadership and appeasement without looking like a captain who's not sure where he's taking the ship. More leadership, please.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.