Forget all the theoretical talk about Obama’s "relationship" with the the base, or the professional left, or the whiners. A concrete test of Obama’s political strategy is playing out in New Orleans, which anchors one of the few Congressional districts that will probably swing from the GOP to Democrats this November.
Louisiana’s second congressional district is so Democratic—and so Obamafied —that it topped the White House list of places to directly deploy the President this election. Obama cut a TV ad this week announcing that he "needs" the Democratic challenger, Cedric Richmond, in Congress. But here’s the rub. The current congressman, Anh Cao, was the only Republican to vote for the House version of health care reform.* By not only backing Cao’s opponent, which is expected, but also prioritizing the race and making a personalized endorsement, Obama is showing that partisan alliances matter more than the signature domestic policy achievement of his first term.
Imagine that. Conservatives are beside themselves.
The local backlash was swift. "Call on your friend President Obama [now]," taunted a conservative Louisiana radio host on Tuesday. "Cao should not expect any help from Obama," added the host, Jeff Crouere, advising Cao to go on offense.
Nationally, LA Times columnist Andrew Malcom is blasting Cao for ever buying into Obama’s "nonsense" about a "renewed sense of bipartisanship." Now the new congressman is tasting grattitude "the Chicago way," Malcom explained. (Conservatives are also mocking Cao on Twitter.)
This little story is stupid but important—like so many things in politics. Bipartisanship has never, ever meant converting to your opponent’s party. It means working with your opponent, in good faith, on governing between elections. Then you return to do battle during the campaign, making the case and seeking a mandate for your governing ideas. And on many ideas, Democrats simply disagree with Cao. He opposed the stimulus and the climate bill, for example, and his party is running an intense, obstructionist attack against the White House, thwarting votes and stalling dozens of nominees in the Senate.
In the end, Republicans are drilling one more nail in a bipartisan coffin that is now mostly made of nails. Overall, the vast majority of Congressional Republicans have been rejecting every bipartisan overture since Day One (see "Mr. President, They’re Just Not That Into You"). And then, the few who do back an Obama initiative apparently want the president to switch parties for it. Their supporters either deliberately misconstrue bipartisanship—or they actually don’t get the concept of working together when you can and also campaigning on your beliefs. That, of course, makes them dismal candidates for sustainable bipartisanship.
*Cao ultimately voted against final passage of the Senate health care bill, saying it would "open the door" to federally funded abortion, but at the time of the House vote, he was taking a large political risk as the only Republican vote, and no one knew there would be a different package on final passage.