Who's Buying Bipartisanship?

Welcome back. This week, Destination Casa Blanca asked its panelists about bipartisanship, and by extension, about the future of the 11th congress.

After the climactic vote on health care reform last weekend, it seemed a good time to ask about one of President Obama's stated goals for his time as president: building down the partisan divides and politics as usual in Washington.

But he came to the West Front of the Capitol to take the oath at a time in American life that seemed pretty resistant to that kind of redefinition. Democrats on his left flank are grumbling that the centrist health care reform was watered down by delay and by the naïve attempt to lure Republicans to vote for it.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Republicans are crying foul, promising calamity, and muttering dark threats about a new resistance to the major items left on the Obama agenda, like financial regulatory reform, climate control legislation, and another run at comprehensive immigration reform.

We began the program with a visitor from the White House, Cecilia Munoz, veteran litigator and longtime leader at the National Council of La Raza, now President Obama's Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. I've been interviewing Munoz for almost 25 years. She's smart. She's tough. And right now she has a really hard job... she's got to explain the White House position on everything to state, city, and county officials across the country, and take the incoming fire when officials from other levels of government have complaints and questions.

She said she's been especially busy lately, helping people at those other levels of government understand what the health care reform bill means to them. Munoz said unlike Congressional Republicans in Washington, Republican office-holders at other levels of government, who serve, as she said "closer to the people" are not worked up the way John Boehner and Company are these days, "Even in the states that are suing us."

She stressed that the President intends to continue to try to enlist Republican support in future initiatives. Contrary to the oft-repeated promise from Republicans in Washington to even strengthen their resistance to the Obama Agenda, Munoz suggests the defeat on health care reform might convince them it makes more sense to work with the White House.

I asked if there was going to be time to complete regulatory reform, greenhouse emissions limits, and immigration reform in the dwindling weeks between now and the mid-term elections, roughly seven months away. Munoz insisted there was enough time, even for immigration reform, which has proved a pretty tough nut to crack even when George W. Bush was in the White House.

Director Munoz moved off the set, and we were joined by two partisans, Adolfo Franco, an appointee in the Bush Administration now working with an industry association in Washington, and Andres Ramirez of the Washington think tank NDN, a supporter of the president.

It will not surprise you to find out that both support bipartisanship in Washington, thought for totally different reasons and in utterly different ways. Franco mourned the Democrat's victory on health care, the glaring deficiencies in the new law, and chalked those errors up to the fact that Republicans were long locked out of the process, one that barred them from taking ownership of, and making improvements to, the reforms.

I noted to Franco that Democrats might have been suspicious of Republican efforts to "help" with the bill, since very early on in the process it was agreed that denying the President a victory on health care would help turn the Obama Presidency into an unproductive one. He returned by saying the people were closer to the Republicans on health care, and if a reform bill had to pass, one with GOP input would have been more of what people wanted.

Ramirez didn't seem to know where to begin. The Republicans never wanted to help the president, from the first minutes after he took the oath of office. If they were locked out of the process of shaping the health care bill, they had no one to blame but themselves, but the Obama Administration still tried to welcome them in. Ramirez pointed out that several of the modifications were Republican ideas, and the president even gave credit where it was due.

I asked both my guests whether bipartisanship was both overemphasized, and overrated. When the newly enlarged Democratic majority came to work in January 2009, it was sent there by a public that had rejected one of the most unpopular presidents, and unpopular congress' in history, and clearly wanted something new. Why not just govern like you won? George W. Bush, with a much slimmer electoral mandate in both 2000 and 2004, and much slimmer majorities in the House and Senate for most of his presidency, sometimes ran the country like he got 80% of the vote and had huge Republican majorities in Congress. Come to think of it, the Republican House and Senate leaders now bemoaning the legislative activities of a much larger Democratic majority were only to happy to press their advantage when they had it.

Though we didn't have time for it in this week's show, it might also be worthwhile to remember that the nature of the GOP and Democratic members of both chambers these days are more partisan than their legislative forebears even at a time of tremendous inter-party battles like the 1960s and 1970s. Once upon a time, both parties had moderate and regional wings. Not long ago even the most true blue partisan battlers had social and workplace friends on the other side of the aisle. These days, members say, those personal relationships are not as common, and both Republicans and Democrats tend to be more committed ideologically to their party's core constituencies.

That elusive butterfly of partisanship is even harder to find in a Democratic Party more concentrated on the coasts, in the Great Lakes, and in the big metropolitan areas... and an even tougher goal in a shrunken Republican Party almost wiped out in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, and more heavily concentrated in the South, Great Plains and West.

The presentations by both Ramirez and Franco were heavily drawn from their own side's playbook in national politics: Bipartisanship is much to be wished for, helpful, useful, a more effective way of doing the people's business. Unfortunately, those guys on the other side can't be trusted to do what's best for the American people.

If you're a Republican or a Democrat, can you trust the people on the other side to make common cause with their opposite numbers in the House and Senate? Do you have to give up too much to win those votes from the other side, betraying the voters who sent you to Washington in the first place?

Let us know. Make your views known on this cross-post at Huffington Post, on the blog at HITN TV, and the Online Newshour. I am looking forward to hearing from you.