Whatever utility the rhetoric of bipartisanship had for Barack Obama during the campaign, it's now time for the president and the Democratic leadership to let it go. As political historian Allen Lichtman argued at TPM last week, the most effective presidents "don't move to the middle; they move the middle to them."
The GOP unequivocally rejected bipartisanship, when yesterday not a single House Republican voted for the economic stimulus package. And this was a package that the Democrats weakened considerably--by incorporating tax giveaways in capitulation to GOP demands. Republicans have chiseled away at other elements of the stimulus package such as Medicaid funding for family planning. All but the most conservative economists concur that the economic benefits of tax cuts will be minor compared to the jolt of increased spending on public works, unemployment benefits, health care, and public transit. But for Republicans, the efficacy of tax cuts--just like the evil and wastefulness of family planning--are a matter of faith.
Some argue that Obama's bipartisanship gives him the moral high ground: he looks statesmanlike, while the GOP appears truculent and uncompromising. Maybe, but does impression management matter in this moment of grave economic crisis? Why concede to the Republicans on what will arguably be the most important legislation of the Obama years? And why continue to give life to the failed Republican tax policies that have contributed mightily to the current crisis?
Others contend that bipartisanship will help Obama and the Democratic leadership shepherd the stimulus package through the Senate. It is true that to have a filibuster-proof majority, Obama needs to win a few moderate Republicans to his side, but squandering one third of the stimulus to appease the right seems a very high price to pay to win over Olympia Snowe and a few others.
The stimulus package, even in its weakened form, is a step in the right direction. But it may well prove to be too small. If it fails to turn the economic tides, pandering to the GOP in the name of a bipartisanship will be a large part of the reason.