Bipartisanship is back as the next new thing in Washington. The White House is convening its bipartisan televised gabfest on health care on Thursday. Last week, the President introduced the co-chairs of his bipartisan commission on the deficits. By calling it quits and going home, Evan Bayh somehow earned wall to wall coverage for his plea for working together. Former Clinton pollster Douglas Schoen tells the Wall Street Journal that Democratic salvation will come by following Bill Clinton’s example when he adopted "the bulk of Republican ideas on taxes, spending and welfare reform."
Before the two Davids–Broder and Gergen–enshrine this as conventional wisdom, a small dose of common sense is needed. First this is the sound of one hand clapping. Last I looked, it took two–as in bi–parties to do something bipartisan. Well, Republicans aren’t playing. The sentiment at the Tea Party and CPAC conventions on the right was more akin to a lynch mob than a negotiating team. And the right’s commissars–led by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin– are intent on purging any Republican legislators who dare stray from the gospel, much less traffic with the other side.
That sentiment is echoed by the Republican congressional leadership, now scrambling to prove their zealotry. Republican legislators championed the idea of a bipartisan commission on deficit reduction–until Barack Obama endorsed it. Then even co-sponsors of the measure joined in torpedoing it in the Senate. House Republican leader John Boehner’s initial precondition for attending the bipartisan summit on health care was that the president "scrap" the legislation that has passed the House and the Senate and "start over." His compromise was to agree to come to the summit to expose the Democratic plan and demand that they agree to start over. This is like the Iranians telling the US they are willing to negotiate about nukes with no preconditions, if the US agrees first to scrap its nuclear arsenal.
The intransigence isn’t accidental. Republicans bet heavily that Obama’s failure would be to their benefit. They’ve honed obstruction into a political art. And they are winning. A year ago they were lost in the wilderness, now they believe they are on the march. Unless American voters start to punish them for their obstruction, they aren’t about to change.
The second thing wrong with the bipartisan vogue is that it assumes that wisdom is somehow located in the middle point between a moderate Democratic Party and an increasingly conservative Republican Party. Figure out what a bunch of Republicans will vote for–if anything–and pass that. That, of course, leads to the likes of Max Baucus wiling away a year negotiating health care with reasonable Republicans like Charles "death panel" Grassley.
Worse, it ignores a little thing–reality outside the beltway. Out here, 25 million people are unemployed. A token bipartisan "jobs bill" that features tax cuts for business and the heirs of the wealthy won’t begin to address this agony. Out here, 45 million Americans go without health insurance, and individual purchasers are getting hit with rate hikes of 40 percent or more. Scrapping comprehensive reform and starting over won’t begin to fix a broken health care system.
Out here, banks have reopened the casino, are still not lending to small businesses, one in four homes are underwater, and credit card companies have been jacking up rates beyond usurious levels that used to lead to eternal damnation. Abandoning consumer protection in finance and giving up on reorganizing the banks won’t help. Schoen argues that the only way to "revive the Democratic brand" is to commit to spending cuts, continuation of the Bush tax cuts, and deficit reduction. This oxymoron is inane even for the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Millions of Americans want action. They want jobs created and the banks curbed. They want leaders who are on their side, and not catering to corporate interests. The President can posture all he wants about bipartisanship. He and the Democrats have to remember one thing: they need to produce–and voters will hold them responsible if they fail.
The best hope for the country and for Democrats is to give Americans a clear choice. Push for a bold jobs bill–let Republicans oppose it, and force them to filibuster against it. And then take the argument to the American people. Push for taxing the bankers and breaking up the big banks and protecting consumers–let Republicans oppose it, force them to filibuster it, and take that to the American people. And stop talking about health care and pass the damn bill. Pass the Senate bill in the House and push the fix through the Senate on reconciliation.
Some suggest Democrats are so terrified after Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts that congressional leaders Pelosi and Reid can’t round up the votes to get this done. I hope that isn’t true. But if it is, the president can convene a dozen bipartisan commissions and summits. He can cross-dress in conservative garb. But none of this will create jobs, curb the banks, or make health care more affordable. None of it will make clear to Americans what the choice is, and who is standing in the way. And having failed to produce and failed to define what they are prepared to fight for, Democrats are likely to lose badly in the fall.