For Obama, paging Howard Baker
The history of past midterm elections shows regular gains for the opposition party and so far, all the polls look upbeat for the GOP. This is why there’s more talk these days in White House circles about measures that might attract bipartisan support. And why one insider says, “If you asked the president what he would really like for Christmas, it would be a smart loyal opposition.”
Of course, Obama’s definition of what would constitute wise, farsighted Republican policy may bear no resemblance to what John Boehner or Mitch McConnell, the GOP leaders in Congress, have in mind. But he’s probably not expecting the kind of relationship that Lyndon Johnson enjoyed with Everett Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader who provided the votes that allowed passage of the great civil rights statutes of the 1960s.
Obama would be well pleased if he could have someone resembling what he recalls hearing about Bob Dole or Howard Baker, Republican Senate leaders who mostly opposed Democratic presidents but made common cause with them on certain national and international issues.
For instance, it is clear that if Obama seeks Senate approval of the stalled free trade agreement with South Korea—a step that would shore up his Asian foreign policy and end the impasse on trade—he will need a higher percentage of votes from Republicans than he is likely to get from Democrats.
Similarly, the extension of the basic elementary and secondary education aid bill, a priority that has slipped from this year to next, becomes much more manageable if Republican votes can be added to make up for any losses among Democrats who may be swayed by opposition from teachers unions or civil rights organizations.
This is why Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are always careful to credit George W. Bush for laying the groundwork for their own reforms with his No Child Left Behind program.
It is more difficult to imagine how Obama will enlist Republican help on some of his other priorities. When the bipartisan commission on debt and deficits reports in December, many in the White House are doubtful that enough Republicans will sign on to provide at least 14 of 18 votes required for a consensus. But at minimum, its majority report is expected to point to a plausible formula for budgetary discipline and, with pressure from the president, force the congressional Republicans to come up with their own plan—not just say no.
Obama is resigned to the fact that he will have to try again for energy and climate legislation, but how to make it bipartisan remains a puzzle. And immigration legislation remains a challenge, not only because of the political focus on the Arizona law dispute, but even more, in Obama’s view, because of the moral imperative for restoring law on the border and ending the stigma of noncitizenship.
As the problem of long-term joblessness has drawn increasing White House attention, thoughts have turned again to the need for large-scale investment in all kinds of infrastructure projects, electronic as well as physical. Obama has set staffers to searching for innovative ways to finance such projects, with some form of public-private partnership, and has asked them to invite Republicans to come forward with ideas that could significantly reduce the ranks of seemingly permanent unemployed construction workers.
Visitors to the White House get no sense that Obama accepts as valid the widespread Republican complaint that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid have systematically excluded the GOP members and their ideas. But if the election goes as most observers expect, Obama seems ready to test the Republicans for himself. As he has sometimes remarked, he is not the classic party animal.
David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at email@example.com.