As Mark Twain might say, the reports of the death of bi-partisanship in Washington D.C. are greatly exaggerated.
President Obama made bi-partisanship a cornerstone of his campaign. Though an economic crisis of historic proportions is dominating his early weeks on the job, many are looking to see if the president will make good on his promise. Voters should hold the president accountable to his stated goal, but refrain from judgment for at least several months, if not for the first year of his administration.
The stimulus bill may have been the toughest sell Mr. Obama faces with Republicans. Or it may be the first of many such tussles. The president met with House Republicans to try to win their support for the package, but did not get a single vote. In the Senate, he was able to persuade just three Re-publicans — Sens. Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter — to vote for the package. To his ardent Democratic supporters, the president’s wooing of hard-line Republicans made him look weak and cloying.
Much was made of Mr. Obama’s “I won” statement to Republican congressional leaders. Critics suggested it indicated the president was intransigent and arrogant about his electoral victory.
The truth of Mr. Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship lies somewhere between the wooing and the “I won.”
Clearly, the president is prepared to include other voices in his administration. He kept Republican Robert Gates as defense secretary, chose Republican Rep. Ray LaHood as transportation secretary and offered the commerce secretary post to Republican Sen. Judd Gregg. In the case of Sen. Gregg, who has since withdrawn, Mr. Obama even agreed to a deal that had New Hampshire’s Democratic Gov. John Lynch appointing a Republican to fill out Sen. Gregg’s term.
Depending on your perspective, Mr. Obama’s attempts to reach out to Republicans look either naive about the differences between the parties, or they look as if he is pandering and trying to polish his own image. The president responded to such assessments saying the partisan divide will not be bridged overnight, and that he intends to continue reaching out to Republicans.
But how should he proceed without watering down his initiatives and giving the minority party too much sway, or merely going through the motions of reaching out and then trampling over opposition with the majority his party holds in Congress?
For each of his initiatives, the president should sit down with Republican leaders and seek their input. He may incorporate some of it, much of it or none of it, but by doing so, Republicans will realize his willingness to work with them is real. For their part, Republicans must remember that voters did choose a very different course for the nation in November.
Most Americans are not, despite what the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world would suggest, choosing sides in the partisan wars. They judge each idea on its merit. Republicans can strengthen some of Mr. Obama’s plans, but to do so, they must embrace the reality that they will pass with or without GOP votes.