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Bipartisanship=Shifting Right?

Media mull White House failures over stimulus partisanship

Many journalists and pundits have reached one very early verdict about the Obama White House: The new president has not lived up to his campaign rhetoric when it comes to reaching out to Republican lawmakers. The evidence? Not a single Republican voted in favor of the White House-backed economic stimulus bill.

Given the concessions made to Republican critics, as well as the high-profile meetings Obama conducted with top Republicans, it's curious that the failure would be portrayed as Obama's. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne put it (2/2/09), "What should have been hailed as an administration victory was cast in large parts of the media as a kind of defeat: Obama had placed a heavy emphasis on bipartisanship, and he failed to achieve it."

This media line Dionne was describing seemed particularly popular among CNN reporters:

Ed Henry (1/28/09): "The bottom line is that, eventually, he's going to have to start moving towards the middle, giving Republicans some concessions on spending and tax measures, give them something they can go back to their voters, their party, and say, look, we got something out of this, before they're ready to jump on board."

Dana Bash (1/28/09): "As much as he said during the campaign he wants to change Washington, he's got to deal not just with Republicans who voted no, but with his Democratic leaders right here in the Congress, who basically didn't necessarily change enough in terms of how they approached this kind of big spending bill in order to get those Republicans and make Obama have that bipartisan vote."

John King (1/28/09): "If you are President Obama, you would look at the numbers and you are a little bit troubled, in the sense that you have promised to govern from the center. You have promised to reach out to the other party. You have promised to end the divide that existed not only through the eight years of George W. Bush, but also through the eight years, largely, of Bill Clinton...if you are trying to build a foundation for bipartisanship, you don't want to get off on such a wildly partisan beginning."

But such warnings were certainly not limited to CNN. Time's Mark Halperin explained on MSNBC (1/29/09):

This is a really bad sign for Barack Obama.... He needs bipartisan solutions. They went for it and they came up with zero.... [This] does not bode well for the future of an enterprise which is supposed to be post-partisan.

Halperin added that Obama had other options:

You can go for centrist compromises. You can say to your own party, "Sorry, some of you liberals aren't going to like it, but I am going to change this legislation radically to get a big centrist majority rather than an all-Democratic vote." He chose not to do that; that's the exact path that George Bush took for most of his presidency, with disastrous consequences for bipartisanship and solving big problems.

The Washington Post editorial page strove to be somewhat even-handed (2/1/09), but ended up making a confusing argument:

Mr. Obama has sought bipartisan support for the bill. This is to his credit, but by simultaneously courting Republicans and assigning the actual drafting of the bill to Democratic congressional leaders, he has wound up zigzagging between the two parties rather than herding them together. When he seemed to lean toward more tax cuts to win over Republicans, Democrats rebelled and opted for more spending. When they proposed hundreds of millions of dollars for contraceptives and the Mall, Mr. Obama had the controversial provisions removed, but too late to win over Republicans.

Note that when Obama changes the bill to respond to Republican complaints and Republicans still refuse to vote for it, it's an example of Obama not being "bipartisan," because he was "too late."

The Post's David Broder, long a champion of centrism and bipartisanship (Extra!, 11-12/94), contrasted Obama's approach with Reagan's (2/1/09):

Nothing was more central to his victory last fall than his claim that he could break the partisan gridlock in Washington. He wants to be like Ronald Reagan, steering his first economic measures through a Democratic House in 1981, not Bill Clinton, passing his first budget in 1993 without a single Republican vote.

The first way leads to long-term success; the second foretells the early loss of control.

This vote will set a pattern for Obama, one way or the other. He needs a bipartisan majority because, tough as this issue is, harder ones await when he turns to energy, healthcare and entitlement reform.

Broder seems uninterested in what kind of policy is enacted, so long as it's "bipartisan." But there is no reason to believe bipartisanship in itself produces better legislation--though it remains an article of faith in the corporate media. Conservatives like Fox News Channel's Fred Barnes put it bluntly (1/28/09): "There are many tax cut ideas. Democrats need to adopt some of them. President Obama needs to adopt them, particularly for this reason: If he's going to be the transformative, bipartisan president that he has said he would be, he has to do that. Just the old party line votes is the old politics."

While it's true that Obama promised an era of bipartisanship (which is, of course, not exactly a novel idea), it did not mean that Republican politicians would stop being Republican politicians who disagree with the opposing party. What the media are essentially arguing is that Obama move to the right--a consistent refrain of the corporate media (Extra!, 7-8/06).

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Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the Communications Director at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Previously at the media watchdog group FAIR, Hart is also the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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