So much for the honeymoon


Is this how a honeymoon is supposed to feel?

Since his election, Barack Obama has called for members of Congress in both parties to abandon the partisanship that has shaped their successful careers and join him in a post-cynical crusade to reform American government.

By and large, they haven’t bought it. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) declared himself “shocked” by the Democrats’ $825-billion economic stimulus plan and denounced it (in distinctly pre-Obama terms) as little more than “liberal Democrat ideas that were stuck in the back of a cabinet somewhere.”

On the other side of the ancient divide, liberal Democrats said they weren’t sure the plan was big enough and asked why they needed to worry about Republican feelings at all.


“We’re being a little too politically sensitive to the conservative right,” said Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), drifting well off the new administration’s message. “Coming to the middle on a political spectrum does not make it right.”

At which point the House of Representatives fell back into its comfortable partisan ways: The majority pushed its bill through committees last week on largely party-line votes, and the minority complained that it had been railroaded.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi summoned her no-nonsense voice to remind the losers of how majority rule works: “Yes, we wrote the bill. Yes, we won the election.” (The California Democrat then remembered to add: “That doesn’t mean we don’t want ... bipartisan support.”)

In fact, there is bipartisan consensus for some kind of big stimulus plan; in the worst economic crisis in a generation, no politician wants to be on the wrong side of that issue. But there isn’t any consensus on how big the plan should be, or how much of it should be government spending (Democrats) or tax cuts (Republicans).

What bipartisanship we are seeing so far is ceremonial, not substantive. The leaders of both parties trooped down to the White House on Friday to get a pep talk from President Obama, but it wasn’t a negotiating session. Obama cleverly agreed to meet again with unhappy House Republicans to let them press their case for bigger tax cuts, depriving the GOP of a cause for complaining that they’re shut out without giving them anything in return.

Politics is working as it always has, with the side holding more cards eager to play them. And seldom has a president been dealt such a strong hand. Yes, the same Republican leaders who denounced Obama as a crypto-socialist during his campaign now appear to be trying to wrap themselves in his aura. But if you listen carefully to what they’re saying, they’re really just trying to lure the president into their camp -- without much hope of success. Even as they denounced the Democrats’ plan, Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) claimed that they were only trying to keep the president’s centrist vision from being hijacked by free-spending liberals. In effect, the diminished Republicans are stuck with appealing to Obama to rein in his own party.

The Republicans’ current weakness -- in the House, they have lost 52 seats since they last held the majority in 2006 -- makes bipartisanship more difficult, and not just because the numbers have shifted. Most of the Republicans who remain are from deeply conservative districts, places where Obama lost, where George W. Bush is still popular and where lower taxes are an article of faith. The swing districts have all swung to Democrats.

To House Democrats, the rewards of bipartisanship look doubtful too. Politically, there’s some appeal in painting the remaining Republicans as opponents of economic recovery and keeping them mired in their corner until election day in 2010. The Democrats’ main preoccupation is maintaining peace within their own caucus between big-spending liberals and fiscally conservative “Blue Dogs” from those newly won swing districts.

In the Senate, where bipartisan negotiation actually does sometimes happen, there’s more room for cooperation -- but it may mostly take the form of a fix for the Alternative Minimum Tax, an upper-middle-class tax cut both parties happen to like. That’s not exactly the dramatic break with old politics Obama was looking for.

Last month, Obama aides talked ambitiously of winning 80 votes for the stimulus package in the 100-member Senate. That goal has quietly been dropped, and Democrats will be satisfied if they can recruit at least two Republicans to their current majority of 58 so they can amass the coalition of 60 votes they’ll need to pass the package quickly.

Obama has spent serious time wooing his defeated rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to serve as his Republican wingman and act as a key player in the new, bipartisan Grand Bargain. But McCain hasn’t declared a position on the stimulus plan yet.

One of McCain’s main claims to conservative legitimacy has always been his fiscal policy; during the presidential campaign, he called for lower taxes, not more spending. Earlier this month, McCain ignored Obama and voted against releasing the second half of the $750-billion Treasury bailout fund.

McCain dryly noted the biggest factors in favor of bipartisanship: “I, like all good politicians, pay attention to the president’s approval ratings. They’re very high. But more importantly, I think the message that the American people are sending us now is they want us to work together.”

It was always going to take longer than a week or a month to transform American politics, of course. The bitter partisanship of the last two decades has been building for a generation.

But the partisan divide runs deeper than mere political gamesmanship. The debate about how big the federal government should be has been at the core of American politics since the Articles of Confederation. In his inaugural address, Obama dismissed it as one of “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long,” but it’s too fundamental a question to wave away, even in the face of a crisis as big as this one.

Obama talks as if he’d like to avoid choosing sides, but he can’t. At this point, the enactment of the stimulus package, the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, looks more like old-fashioned politics -- a popular president steamrolling a fragmented opposition -- than any New Age post-partisan convergence.