Bipartisanship Fetishism vs. What's Best for America: Obama Needs to Choose

UPDATE: At tonight's press conference, CBS's Chip Reid asked President Obama about whether, given the lack of bipartisanship on the stimulus bill, the White House was "moving away" from its "emphasis on bipartisanship? And what went wrong?"

To his credit, Obama said that his "bottom line when it comes to the recovery package" is: does it create or save jobs? And later, in response to a question from AP's Jennifer Loven, Obama said: "I'm happy to get good ideas from across the political spectrum, from Democrats and Republicans. What I won't do is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place, because those theories have been tested, and they have failed."


ORIGINAL POST: The first question at tonight's White House press conference should be: Mr. President, what is your priority -- bipartisanship or what is best for America? And when the two are in conflict, which are you going to choose?

Although the answer should be obvious, the president's actions over the last couple of weeks have left many wondering.

And when I say "bipartisanship," I am referring to the Washington definition: going to the other party, splitting any differences you have, patting each other on the back about how nice and civil you are being, and moving on.

If this is what is meant by "bipartisanship," the events of the last two weeks have shown beyond any doubt that the goal of bipartisanship and the goal of what is best for America are incompatible.

Real leadership is putting forth a bold vision and relentlessly building a consensus around it -- not splitting the difference with a party whose leaders believe, among other things, that government jobs are not real jobs, and that Obama's stimulus plan is "the socialist way."

When Galileo became convinced of the truth about how the solar system works, he didn't decide to just split the difference with the Pope so he could get a few nice editorials about "common ground" and "working together." If he had, countless ships would have sunk -- and sailors drowned -- by heading out to sea armed with maps and navigation principles derived from the compromise.

Perhaps there will come a day when the Venn diagrams of the Republican Party and the national interest actually intersect. Today, however, we find ourselves with a Republican Party whose new leader, Michael Steele, went on This Week and claimed, to the obvious puzzlement of George Stephanopoulos, that government jobs aren't real jobs because they go away. Unlike private sector jobs, which are permanent. Except when they aren't -- like for 2.6 million people in the last year.

That's today's Republican Party. It's a party that, instead of a stimulus plan, puts forward a no-spending all-tax-cut proposal, pushed by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, that would do nothing but harm -- and the plan still gets 36 of 41 Republican votes in the Senate. As Paul Krugman put it: "There isn't much room for bipartisanship when 87.8% of the other party is totally irresponsible."

It's the party of Secretary of Transportation -- and former GOP Congressman -- Ray LaHood, who told CNN's John King of his efforts to reach out to his former colleagues and convince them to do the right thing on the stimulus bill. That effort netted him zero votes.

It's the party of GOP Rep. Pete Sessions, who says Republicans might need to adopt a Talibanesque approach to taking on Obama.

This is the party Obama wants to split the difference with?

Let's remember, this is also a party that already blocked a stimulus bill last year -- one that, had it passed, could have mitigated the economic suffering we are now experiencing.

As John Conyers told me this weekend, "it's hard to hear Republicans, early in the day -- before they've even taken a drink -- say that what we need is less regulation and more tax cuts." As if the last eight years never happened.

Let's take a look at how sweet the fruits of bipartisanship have been so far. The biggest cut to the stimulus bill made by Senate Republicans was the $40 billion in state aid axed out by bipartisan cover girl Susan Collins. According to the LA Times, here are some of the results of this "compromise": "Parks will close. Environmental programs will be scaled back. Bus and ferry routes will shut down, possibly sending more drivers onto clogged streets and highways. Schools may go without school nurses, and classes may become more crowded. Sick people who rely on state health programs may instead get sicker."

And what will the nearly $90 billion in cuts to the bill mean in terms of jobs? According to Krugman, the upshot will be 600,000 fewer jobs.

In fairness, not everyone agrees with that figure. Dean Baker thinks the cuts will mean the loss of only 500,000 jobs.

Whichever it is, hooray for bipartisanship! So far, Obama's devotion to it might cost at least half a million jobs. Now I'm sure losing their job is going to be unpleasant for those half a million people and their families, but perhaps when their children get sick over the next year, instead of paying for a doctor with the health insurance they'll no longer have, they can heal the child with pleasant talk of Beltway bipartisanship.

But even though half a million jobs have already been sacrificed on the altar of bipartisanship, don't expect any kudos from the self-professed champions of bipartisanship in the DC media.

For instance, there was Mark Halperin on Charlie Rose, warning that the White House's recent criticism of those opposing the bill "is turning off Republicans" and "forcing them back into the arms of Rush Limbaugh."

Or you get the Washington Post editorial page wagging its finger at Obama, calling his accusation that critics of his plan were peddling "the same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis" a "thinly veiled reference to Senate Republicans" that is "a departure from his previous emphasis on bipartisanship."

The danger of making bipartisanship a goal -- an end unto itself -- is that the actual details of the bill become secondary to the process of passing it.

We live in a world in which one of our two parties is willing to allow the country to go down the drain for its own short-term gain. Here is the potentially catastrophic game of chicken Republicans are playing: They want to force enough compromises in the stimulus bill -- which is already not bold enough - to make it too weak to succeed. Then, having negotiated these compromises, they won't even vote for it -- which will allow them to run against the "collapsed Democratic economy" in 2010. And 2012.

Obama and his economic team know what kind of stimulus plan has the greatest chance of speeding up our economic recovery and alleviating the suffering of millions in the meantime. So they need to stop trying to appease the bipartisanship fetishists.

If the stimulus plan doesn't work, it won't be because it wasn't bipartisan -- it will be because it's not big and bold enough.

P.S. The criticism of bipartisanship for bipartisanship's sake has begun to reach critical mass. Here are Drew Westen, Tina Brown, and Jane Hamsher taking their licks.