<i>Time</i>'s Halperin: Obama Not Bipartisan Enough

In Halperin's world, good policy has nothing to do with the policy itself -- rather, it has everything to do with whether the policy breeds an overall mood of general agreement.

Just over a week ago, Mark Halperin criticized President Barack Obama for his inability to solve the world's problems, which are solved not through wise policy initiatives, but through the Magicks of Bipartisanship. He was back on the Charlie Rose Show this weekend, not letting this go. Let's examine this nonsense.

HALPERIN: He's perfectly entitled to govern with Democratic votes, to turn himself over to some extent, as George Bush did with his party leaders in Congress and say, "Get me bills that I can like and live with," with basically party votes. Whip your caucus, get those votes, let's see if we can pick off enough Republicans in the Senate, and if we pick up some Republicans in the House to call it bipartisan, great.

Yes! That does sound great. Sounds to me like that's the obvious way to serve the people that elected you and put those majorities in place for you to work with in Congress. But Halperin seems to think that there's a more virtuous way of governing than actually acknowledging the political will of the people.

To Halperin, this is the way Bush governed. And I think it's clear that Halperin isn't fond of the way Bush governed! But Halperin believes Bush's main problem was the way he got policy passed, and not the policies themselves.

HALPERIN: It is much to my surprise -- because I did not think that was the way Obama was going to govern -- this is in some ways, of the big things he needs to do ... banking, financial reform, there's a host of things, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a budget, dealing with health care, that will be much more difficult to do, that will require bipartisan cooperation.

No. They will probably require Obama to whip his caucus, get their votes, and pick off a few Republicans votes when necessary!

Halperin, however, insists that "if the problems of the country [are] to be solved, we're much better off if we have them solved in a bipartisan way." So, practically speaking, how does Obama go about making this bipartisan paradise come about? Halperin's got a plan, and it's an exceedingly myopic one!

HALPERIN: It's one thing to try to pick off members of the other party, it's another to go to the leaders of both parties and say, "We're going to form a joint whip operation, we're going to lose votes on the left and the right, but we're going to get enough votes in the center to pass this. That's the only way to solve problems, and the only way to change Washington.

Okay, just imagine Obama taking this argument to John Boehner. "Hey, John! I want you to secure a bunch of centrist votes for the economic stimulus package. Yeah, we're going to lose a lot of your caucus' votes. Hell, you're not a centrist, so we're going to lose your vote! But do this for me. I'm going to get Nancy Pelosi to do the same thing. Sure, when all is said and done, I'll either get blown out by about two hundred votes or I'll have a really terrible bill, but Mark Halperin will start saying nice things about how effectively I'm solving America's problems."

In Halperin's world, good policy has nothing to do with the policy itself -- rather, it has everything to do with whether the policy breeds an overall mood of general agreement. Bipartisanship becomes an end in itself, ringing enough happy bells so that all the angels can get their wings! But even in this regard, Obama has sold the stimulus very well:

As that graph indicates, all of the bog-down over this bill is focused on a small set of tiny slivers of the overall package. The package has actually come together with broad, bipartisan consensus. If we assume that all parties have been entirely fair in the discourse over the bill (and there's no reason in the world to assume that, but for the sake of argument we'll allow it), then Obama's decision is clear. If he can live without the parts of the bill that have garnered objection, he can lose them and hopefully win broad support. Or, if he can't live without them, he can fight to get what he wants passed on a party line vote.

But, more to the point, what are Halperin's beloved centrists doing to the bill in the meantime? Why, they are diminishing its effectiveness! Senators Collins and Nelson, for example, have already cut $25 billion of funding to state governments. These monies are the truest levers of stimulus, by keeping people in jobs, and helping to preserve unemployment insurance for those who have lost their jobs. Halperin's centrists have weakened the stimulus, apparently under the belief that the Economy will hand out some bonus points to everyone because a handful of extra Republicans were willing to vote for the bill.

Honestly, I have no idea what it is that Halperin deems to be centrist. For example, I read in the New York Times today an editorial about revisiting the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. It's author, Owen West, a former Marine, contends the following:

When President Clinton announced his initiative, 44 percent of Americans were in favor of homosexuals serving openly, which perhaps explains the split decision of "don't ask, don't tell."

But today nearly 80 percent of Americans feel that way. As our troops tend to reflect the values of our society, lifting the homosexual ban will be easier now.

If what West says is true, and 80% of Americans are in favor of "homosexuals serving openly" in the military, then surely we do not need of the approval of some self-appointed avatar of "centrism' say-so before we accept this as a broadly-supported policy. Surely we can say that there is nothing even remotely fringe about it.

So it is no surprise to me that Obama is not going on bended knee to Congressional leaders to ask them for additional help in watering down the bill. Rather, he is out in front of the voters, and turning them further to his side. And, as noted earlier today, here's how Obama can measure his support in advance of his barnstorming:

--"Sixty-seven percent of the American people approve of how President Obama's handling his efforts to pass an economic stimulus bill."

--"the disapproval rating for Congressional Republicans remains a 'staggeringly high' 58%"

--"Gallup says that 51% of those polled believe that passing the economic stimulus plan is "critically important" for the economy, with 29% saying it's important. Only 16% say it is 'not that important.'"

Naturally, there's nothing wrong with consensus. Frankly, given the limited scope of the Republicans' objections to the bill, I think Obama's not going to lose any sleep over the lack thereof. But as swift as Halperin is to constantly genuflect in the direction of "bipartisanship," you never hear a peep out of him on what, if anything, bipartisanship is going to yield in practical terms. Halperin is doing nothing more than repeating a bland media mantra. His version of "bipartisanship" is divorced from the idea of real-world results and responsibility, and his version of "centrism" doesn't take the mainstream will of the electorate into account. If the best that everyone can agree upon is to do something ineffective, then what's the point?

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