THE BLOG
05/03/2009 08:53 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Shall We Abandon the Audacity of Hope?

Shortly after Barack Obama was elected, I circulated a proposal to establish an Office of Bipartisan Public Outreach, to be headed by Melody Barnes, the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Its mission would be to field bipartisan Democratic and Republican community teams that would emphasize points of agreement between liberals and conservatives.

The new office would enable the White House to bypass the argumentative journalism that exaggerates political polarization to power the daily combat of screaming radios, blogs, and cables. The White House Office of Bipartisan Public Outreach would take President Obama's message of consensus and conciliation directly to the public.

Nowadays, this notion that the White House can diminish the rancor between Republicans and Democrats seems rather quaint.

It may be time to abandon the hope of ending the destructiveness of overamped pit-bull politics. Instead, it may be more productive to focus on merely managing the increasingly extremist partisan conflicts rather than trying to end them. This would be like a form of comfort care, treating a disease that cannot be cured, yet which may be prevented from spreading and causing unnecessary pain.

The audacity of hope promised that a fresh dose of political goodwill might finally break the search and destroy fever of excessive partisanship that began with the impeachment of Bill Clinton for the high crimes and misdemeanors of arranging for oral sex with pizza. This poisonous political rancor continued when critics opted to dismiss the charge that George W. Bush's folly in Iraq merely flowed from the misjudgments of a well intentioned naïf. Instead, many chose to accuse our twice-elected president of being a war criminal who deliberately lied the country into a disastrous war for Halliburton's petrodollars.

Now that the extremist battles against Clinton and Bush have faded, what has Obama's three months of moderation brought us? Charges from his opponents that he is plotting to undermine the capitalist system with oppressive bailouts and healthcare social welfare bribery in order to make CEOs and their workers so utterly dependent on Washington liberals that voters will have little choice but to keep their socialist string-pullers in power for generations.

Yet when our first African-American president spoke to us from the inaugural podium not so long ago, didn't it seem as if finally, both Democrats and Republicans were ready to rise above such toxic partisanship? "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics," Obama told us. "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."

When I was advocating for a new White House Office of Bipartisanship Public Outreach, I found many liberals and conservatives who were eager to follow President Obama into a more mature era of civility and compromise.

"I think the time is overdue for a bi-partisan treatment, if not a non-partisan treatment in thinking about public policy," John Raisian, director of the conservative Hoover Institution, explained when expressing his support for the proposed White House bipartisan outreach project. An interesting project, agreed Amy Rosenbaum, legislative director for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said that she saw no reason why her liberal boss would be opposed to a new concerted push for bipartisanship. Charles Curits, who heads Ted Turner's Nuclear Threat Initiative, likewise concluded that the concept was an important one, while on the other side of the partisan divide, Dan Schnur, the former communications director for John McCain and current director of the Unruh Institute of Politics, echoed the view, calling the proposal a terrific idea.

Clarine Nardi Riddle, Chief of Staff for Senator Joe Lieberman, was especially enthusiastic about the notion of establishing a White House Office of Bipartisan Public Outreach. "We know how hard it is to bring bipartisanship to Capitol Hill," Ms. Riddle acknowledged, agreeing that having "a structural addition" as part of the White House Domestic Policy Council could help President Obama "send a message to the public that bipartisanship truly will be an integral part of the approach/thinking of this Administration, like the faith-based and other initiatives are."

Academics and business leaders shared the political enthusiasm of political activists for a formal White House effort tasked with building bipartisanship. "It is the approach we need," declared Frank Macchairola, the educational reformer and former Chancellor of the New York City Schools. Thomas Patterson, Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, similarly supported the concept, touting "its explicit commitment to communication across partisan divides."

The support for increased bipartisan outreach was widespread, even among those who might seem most averse to the compromises that would inevitably result. Mark DeMoss, the leader of one of the country's foremost conservative Christian outreach and public relations firms, hailed the "conceiving and pursuing" of a new White House office committed solely to bipartisanship.

Amid the rancor surrounding the role of CEOs in the unraveling of key financial and manufacturing sectors, the former CEO of Time-Warner, Gerald Levin, noted the "striking concept" of having a White House office formally tasked with culturing a climate of consensus, lamenting "the confrontational cacophony" that has been "greeting this Administration's genuine attempt to deal with the current crisis of confidence in our institutions."

The hope for a growing bipartisanship in America may have already foundered under the confrontational cacophony. Maybe the inspiring prospect of devoting resources to a formalized White House office to promote bipartisanship is looking more and more like an ill-advised waste of political time and capital.

A wiser investment might be to pursue a more measured partisanship, one which accepts the futility of seeking greater consensus and instead seeks to simply limit the social damage of increasing confrontation. There will be no demonization of the opposition, no resort to character assassination and accusations of disloyalty, deceit, warmongering, and profiteering. Yet there will be no hesitancy to use the full measure of the political power that one party has accumulated to dominate and overpower the other.

Freed of the fruitless pursuit of bipartisanship, the unabashed expansion of one's own political power can become the priority, so that winning the upcoming political battles need not rely on the consent and goodwill of the opposition.

Perhaps it was the audacity of a hopeful bipartisanship that was the childish thing, and what the last hundred days have shown is that we should now put it aside and fully embrace the audacity of victory.

Steve Posner is the author of "Israel Undercover: Secret Warfare and Hidden Diplomacy in the Middle East." His latest book is "Spiritual Delights and Delusions: How to Bridge the Gap between Spiritual Fulfillment and Emotional Realities." Visit his website at steveposner.com