Monday, February 16, 2009

Obama's Call for Bipartisanship Falls on Deaf Ears Among Left, Right Hard-Liners

The President Must Face the Cold Reality That the Chasm in the World Views of Ideologically-Driven Liberals and Conservatives on Capitol Hill -- and of Their Equally Hard-Line Allies in the Blogosphere, Cable News Channels, Major Newspapers and Talk Radio -- Is Too Deep to be Bridged and There's Little He Can Do About It

President Obama has made it clear that he's fed up with the the increasingly bitter partisan clashes between Democrats and Republicans and is determined to bring an end to the warfare. But liberals within his own Democratic Party, as well as conservative Republicans -- not to mention their allies in the Internet blogosphere, on the cable news channels, in major newspapers and on talk radio -- are in no mood to back down. With the Democrats now firmly in charge of both the White House and Congress -- and with public opinion, for now, on the president's side -- liberals are determined to put their own stamp on government policy, while conservatives are equally determined to preserve the policies of the previous Bush administration. (Cartoon by Ben Hoffman/

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Monday, February 16, 2009)


"Post-partisanship? Forget about it! The people spoke loud and clear last November: They wanted change after eight years of right-wing Republican rule. We promised the people change. They elected us to deliver it -- and by God, we're going to keep our promise. If the Republicans don't like it, that's too damn bad!"

* * *

You're not likely to hear that above statement uttered publicly by any Democrat on Capitol Hill anytime soon. But there's little doubt that many Democrats -- particularly in the House of Representatives -- are thinking that.

Their allies in the liberal Internet blogosphere, on MSNBC and in major newspapers have no compunction about saying it openly and loudly -- and are determined to keep up pressure on the Democrats to make good on their promise for change.

Not surprisingly, Republicans -- still reeling from having taken their worst ballot-box drubbing since 1964 -- have hardened into a fierce opposition force, fighting the president and his party tooth and nail, despite lacking the votes, at least in the House, to stop the Democrats from pushing through their agenda.

Egged on by their equally loud allies in the conservative Internet blogosphere, on Fox News Channel and on talk radio (particularly Rush Limbaugh), Republicans appear bent on preserving many of the policies of the previous Bush administration, despite their massive repudiation by the voters in last November's election.


This partisan schism was made crystal clear on Friday, when not a single House Republican -- and only three of their Senate colleagues -- crossed the aisle to vote for President Obama's $789 billion economic stimulus package. Praising its passage as a "major milestone on our road to recovery," Obama is scheduled to sign the bill into law tomorrow (Tuesday).

Just hours before the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear that her Democratic caucus was going to move forward with the measure with or without support from Republicans, brushing off calls for a bipartisan consensus as mere "process," hardly relevant to its passage.

But that's not all.

Democrats and their allies bombarded the districts of vulnerable House Republicans in the economically hard-pressed Midwest with a blitz of negative radio and TV ads, blasting them for their opposition to the stimulus bill and accusing them of condemning millions of Americans -- including their own constituents -- to long-term unemployment.

The spots demanded that GOP members of Congress "stop saying no" and support their constituents by supporting the stimulus package.

The Republicans quickly fired back with Web videos of their own, including a controversial, profanity-laced spot posted by the office of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Ohio) that blasted one of the bill's chief backers, a public-employee union.

Meanwhile, Representative Tom Price (R-Georgia), chairman of GOP Study Committee, stood outside Speaker Pelosi's office last Wednesday and filmed a video in which he claimed, "There are more shady deals going on behind closed doors."


While the public strongly approves of the president's job performance nearly a month after his inauguration, as evidenced by recently-released opinion polls, Obama knows that the success of his presidency rests on his ability to turn the economy around and that even thornier battles in Congress lay ahead as he turns his attention toward, among other things, putting together a budget for the 2010 fiscal year and reforming the nation's health care system.

This is why Obama has been so eager to bring an end to the partisan mudslinging. But whether the president likes it or not, it's not likely to go away for many years to come. The political bloggers (including, to be candid, this one), the talking heads on the cable news channels and, of course, the fire-breathing rabble-rousers of talk radio -- the modern-day "nattering nabobs of negativism" as the late former Vice President Spiro Agnew famously branded the mainstream news media in the 1970s -- will surely see to that.

Not to mention the leaders of the two major parties in Congress. That became abundantly clear by the slashing rhetorical back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans in the House.

"Their strategy," said Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) of the Republicans, "is to be obstructionist no matter how inclusive the process is."

"They're [Republicans] not interested in building anything," said Representative Jim McDermott (D-Washington), a liberal member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. "Their only goal is seek and destroy. You can't have bipartisanship with [only] one side.

"Once we [Democrats] put [the Republicans] back the minority," McDermot continued, "they've gone back to the [Newt] Gingrich model," referring to the former Republican House speaker who led the GOP's 1994 electoral revolt and pushed through an ambitious conservative agenda.


Republicans quickly fired back, accusing the Democratic majority of shoving aside GOP members' concerns -- and their complaints weren't limited to the stimulus bill.

"It doesn’t have to be this way, but Speaker Pelosi continues to operate in a narrow, partisan way," said Representative Patrick McHenry (R-North Carolina), a conservative first elected in 2004 and, at age 33, one of the youngest members of Congress. "In the end, she’s undermining Obama’s pledge of bipartisanship."

Representative Darrell Issa (R-California) accused House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wisconsin) of failing to divulge that his son Craig was lobbying him on the economic recovery package, raising the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, Representative John Carter (R-Texas) offered a resolution calling on House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-New York) to step down from his post while an ethics probe into his personal finances continues.


While no one in Washington realistically expected Obama’s pledge to "fix our broken politics" would be met quickly or easily, the partisan divide separating Democrats and Republicans goes far beyond traditional party rivalry. It is, in reality, a 40-year-old and increasingly bitter ideological war between liberals and conservatives, with liberals wielding heavy influence in the Democratic Party and conservatives controlling the GOP with an iron grip.

This take-no-prisoners attitude by both sides is a stark and rude reminder to Obama that ideology really does matter in modern American politics. Indeed, ideology matters far more than party affiliation or the lack thereof, as evidenced by the fact that many moderate voters -- perhaps a majority of them -- identify themselves as independents, making up nearly a third of the electorate and holding the balance of power in elections.

The bottom line: Moderate voters don't like either party to swing too far to the left or to the right. They've abandoned the Democrats in the past when the party moved too far to the left. Now they've abandoned the GOP for having moved too far to the right, even as the Democrats -- slowly -- have moved toward the center, but are still under the strong influence of the party's liberal wing on hot-button social issues, such as abortion, the separation of church and state and the legalization of marriage for gay and lesbian couples.


Even the president himself, while going out of his way to reach out to Republicans in what turned out to be a futile effort, save for three GOP senators, to win their support for his stimulus package, found himself compelled to fire a partisan shot at Republicans in response to their criticism of the measure -- particularly their claim that it spends too much of the taxpayer's money.

"First of all, when I hear that from folks who presided over a doubling of the national debt, then I just want them to not engage in some revisionist history," Obama told fellow Democrats at a party retreat in Virginia. "I inherited the deficit that we have right now, and I inherited the economic crisis that we have right now!"

It was a bluntly-worded reminder to the Republicans that when they controlled Congress for six of the eight years of the Bush presidency, they expanded government spending by hundreds of billions of dollars to fight the "war on terror" -- while at the same time cutting taxes on the wealthiest one percent of Americans.

The result was a massive draining of the Treasury that far exceeded that of the Reagan administration in the 1980s -- obliterating a $100 billion budget surplus that Bush inherited in 2001 from his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and racking up the largest budget deficit in the nation's history: A staggering $1 trillion.

That's trillion, with a T.

Nonetheless, Obama told his fellow Democrats that even as they had, for all intents and purposes, given up on a new, bipartisan approach with the GOP, he had not. "Hopefully, the tone that I've taken, which has been consistently civil and respectful, will pay some dividends over the long term," he said. "There are going to be areas where we disagree, and there are going to be areas where we agree."

But with right-wing hard-liners in the GOP still insisting that their party "not surrender" their "conservative principles" even as the party embarks on a effort to expand its electoral appeal -- which, given its image as a party dominated by conservative Southern white males, it must do for the sake of its long-term survival -- it remains to be seen whether a new bipartisan atmosphere can truly take root in Washington without the GOP having to first undergo a bitter, ugly internal power struggle between what few moderates remain in the party and allied fiscal conservatives on one side and the right-wing social and religious hard-liners and allied "neoconservatives" on the other.


And then there is the political earthquake set off late Thursday by the sudden decision of Senator Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) to withdraw his nomination by Obama to be the next commerce secretary.

Unlike past Cabinet nominees who withdrew in the face of unexpected controversies exploding in their faces, Gregg appears to have withdrawn for purely partisan political reasons, declaring that there were irreconcilable differences between himself and the president on the stimulus bill.

Seeing himself as also having deep philosophical differences with the Obama administration on other policy matters, Gregg -- who also announced that he would not seek re-election to his Senate seat next year -- said that it had gradually dawned on him that being a mouthpiece for the administration "wasn't my personality, after 30 years of being myself."

Gregg, who abstained from voting on the Senate version of stimulus bill last week out of deference to Obama while a Cabinet nominee, voted against the compromise version of the measure on Friday after announcing his withdrawal.

The 61-year-old Gregg would have been the third Republican to join Obama's bipartisan Cabinet, after Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who retired from Congress last year after representing his hometown of Peoria, Illinois for 14 years.

Gregg is the second nominee for commerce secretary to pull out. The president's first choice, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, abruptly withdrew after The New York Times revealed on December 19 that he was under investigation by a federal grand jury amid allegations that Richardson gave lucrative contracts to a California financier in return for contributions to a political action committee headed by the governor.


Meanwhile, the nomination of Representative Hilda Solis (D-California) to be the next labor secretary has run into a filibuster by Republican senators who object to Solis' role as a board member and treasurer of American Rights at Work, a non-profit group that is lobbying Congress to to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposed amendment to the Depression-era National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that would make it easier for workers to form a union or to join an existing union.

Solis won the approval of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee -- with just two negative votes -- after more than a month of delays over questions about tax liens that her husband recently paid and her association with ARW.

A cloture vote is scheduled for February 24 -- the same day that Obama is scheduled to deliver a State of the Union-style address to a joint session of Congress. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required to cut off debate and advance Solis' nomination to a final confirmation vote.

The EFCA, which would repeal portions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act governing unionization drives and override many state "right-to-work" laws, is a high-priority item for the AFL-CIO, along with two of the nation's three largest independent unions: the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The labor federation is anxious to stem a nearly 30-year decline in union membership among America's workforce, a decline many attribute to the mass firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 when the controllers' union, PATCO, refused to comply with Reagan's executive order under the Taft-Hartley Act to return to work.

All three labor organizations also strongly support the Solis nomination.

(Conspicuously, the nation's largest independent union, the three-million-member National Education Association, has not taken a position on either the Solis nomination or the EFCA.)

So despite the president's call for an end to "the smallness of our politics" and his criticism of the "preference for scoring cheap political points," it's not going to go away any time soon.

To the contrary, it's all but certain to intensify when the president unveils his first budget -- and is all but guaranteed to really flare up when Obama gets his first opportunity to nominate federal judges -- especially if that first judicial nomination is to the Supreme Court.

# # #

Volume IV, Number 13
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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