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The Strange Bipartisanship of 2009, 2011, and 2013
On June 1, in Minneapolis, the president spoke some words to supporters that ought to have left them slack-jawed. As Devin Dwyer wrote at Jake Tapper's excellent blog, Political Punch, President Obama said last Friday that "if he wins a second term the GOP 'fever' of opposition to tax hikes for deficit reduction may break." Why would the fever break? Fever is the Republican condition. Look at what they did to President Carter over the Iran hostage crisis, and what they did to President Clinton over the assault weapons ban. Has no visitor who entered the Oval Office listened to Fox Radio for half an hour in the last four years?
Obama in the same speech referred back to the better days of a Republican Party that dwelt (with whatever admixture of opportunism) somewhere in the precincts of reality: "John McCain believed in climate change. John believed in campaign finance reform. He believed in immigration reform. I mean, there were some areas where you saw some overlap." Well, but what has been the record of John McCain on all of these issues since 2009? The example proves too much.
"In this election," Obama conceded, "the Republican Party has moved in a fundamentally different direction. The center of gravity for their party has shifted." Why not say that their center of gravity has become the far right, and that the far right now controls the party with no scope for disagreement? What ought to follow from that perception is that 2012 feels like a fight because it is a fight. Obama, however, drew the opposite conclusion: "I believe that if we're successful in this election," he told his followers, "that the fever may break, because there's a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that." What evidence can he show of any continuity with a Republican tradition of common sense?
Just one of two motives can have driven Obama to hazard so improbable a speculation. It might be contempt for his audience (but that is a feeling he normally covers under platitude and a pampered tenderness toward other people's clichés). Or it might be wishful projection -- a notable element of the character of this president. In fact, the latter is the likelier cause, for in Minneapolis the fantasy outdid itself: "My hope and my expectation is that after the election, now that it turns out the goal of beating Obama doesn't make much sense because I'm not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again."
The president reasons thus. It was always only personal; the Republicans resented me. Once I defeat their hopes a second time by winning reelection, their resentment will vanish. The Republicans will then become practical men and women who, even as they disparage government, finally recognize that they have to govern. They will accept the second four years of me, as they did not accept the first four years, because they know there will not be a third four years. "We're not going to have people raising their hands and saying -- [here the president broke off, rather than attribute harsh words to his enemies] or refusing to accept a deal where there's $10 of cuts for every dollar of tax increases." But again, why should the Republicans stop refusing? Where do such sanguine expectations come from?
One sometimes gets a sense of unreality emanating from the White House that is almost a match for the Republicans. Granted the president and his advisers are less savage, less anarchic, and, from the point of view of the public good, less dangerous than the Tea Party which now holds the Republican Party captive. Then again, who is more untethered, the man who stomps around his back yard every night at midnight for 133 weeks, wearing sunglasses and reading the prose of Atlas Shrugged through a megaphone -- or the neighbor who looks on the scene benignly and concludes: "He really seems eminently reasonable underneath. I am sure he'll change and let us sleep next year, now that our kids are school age."
Obama went very far in his siege of optimism last Friday. As forerunners of the progress he believes to be likely under a Republican Congress during his second term, he cited specifically deficit reduction, a transportation bill, and immigration reform as measures that all might pass in November. This eerie drift of positive thinking in Minneapolis in June 2012 brought a reminder of a similar dreamlike ballooning of confidence around 20 months ago.
In an interview with the New York Times reporter Peter Baker, published in October 2010, when the writing was on the wall for the Democratic mid-term defeat of 2010, Barack Obama said he suspected that a Republican victory would mellow the Republican Party. "Obama expressed," wrote Baker,
optimism to me that he could make common cause with Republicans after the midterm elections. "It may be that regardless of what happens after this election, they feel more responsible," he said, "either because they didn't do as well as they anticipated, and so the strategy of just saying no to everything and sitting on the sidelines and throwing bombs didn't work for them, or they did reasonably well, in which case the American people are going to be looking to them to offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way."
When asked to name a reasonable Republican he would be able to work with, Obama in October 2010 mentioned Paul Ryan.
It has been said that Barack Obama's picture of himself as a universal conciliator is a delusion in the clinical sense: a fixed false belief. If so, it was a false belief that suited the enchanted years that led to 2008, and that was never dispelled by a study of the 1990s, when Obama was cocooned in ambition and took little notice of the national scene. It was wrong of him to say in 2008 that the impeachment of Bill Clinton was merely an excess of "partisan bickering." It was a raging fever then, as it is now. It has never gone away. What is strange is that the delusion has not been dispelled by the daily experience of four years as president. Not even the debt-ceiling negotiations, when he told an imaginary bipartisan Congress to "pull off the Band-Aid" and "eat our peas," and put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block and came back empty-handed -- not even that shambles of executive delay and disengagement and triple dealing with John Boehner and Eric Cantor seems to have taught the president the futility of thinking on those lines.
With his show of equable temper and his inability to admit what he is up against, Obama resembles the baffled psychiatrist who says to the terrible girl in The Ring: "You don't want to hurt anyone." The Tea Party (if it could reply) would say, as the girl says: "But I do, and I'm sorry. It won't stop." Why would anyone expect them to stop? With the ideas they have, and the society they wish for, and their success thus far, they have no internal reason to stop. In 2013, will Barack Obama act on any other plan than his "expectation" that somehow, this time, nevertheless, they will stop?