Commentary Magazine


Topic: bipartisanship

An Obama-Gohmert Gridlock Alliance?

As a new Congress was sworn in today, the White House fired the first shot over the Republican leadership’s bow when spokesman Josh Earnest indicated that President Obama would veto a bill authorizing the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Considering that this is one of the first items the GOP-controlled House and Senate will consider in the coming days, the president’s warning that he will veto it no matter what it looks like when passed put a fork in any happy talk about cooperation or bipartisan problem solving. Though many Democrats are unhappy with Obama’s clear appetite for confrontation with Republicans even over a measure that is largely popular with the public, the president is not without some allies in his effort to prevent the House and the Senate from accomplishing anything in the next two years. The 25 Republican House dissidents who voted against John Boehner’s reelection as speaker of the House stand ready to assist the White House in an effort to continue the war to the death between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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As a new Congress was sworn in today, the White House fired the first shot over the Republican leadership’s bow when spokesman Josh Earnest indicated that President Obama would veto a bill authorizing the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Considering that this is one of the first items the GOP-controlled House and Senate will consider in the coming days, the president’s warning that he will veto it no matter what it looks like when passed put a fork in any happy talk about cooperation or bipartisan problem solving. Though many Democrats are unhappy with Obama’s clear appetite for confrontation with Republicans even over a measure that is largely popular with the public, the president is not without some allies in his effort to prevent the House and the Senate from accomplishing anything in the next two years. The 25 Republican House dissidents who voted against John Boehner’s reelection as speaker of the House stand ready to assist the White House in an effort to continue the war to the death between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Of course, the 25 GOP dissenters led by Representatives Louie Gohmert of Texas and Dan Webster of Florida view themselves as the president’s most implacable foes. Their dissatisfaction with Boehner stems from what they view as his readiness to make deals with the Democrats when what they want from their leader is a scorched earth policy with respect to the White House. But despite their mutual hostility, Obama and the Gohmert Republicans have a common agenda. Just as the president has no intention of working with Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on anything substantive, these Tea Partiers are intent on preventing anything that smacks of compromise. Indeed, these members may turn out to be the president’s last line of defense against a congressional leadership that hopes to put the onus for gridlock on Obama.

After all the huffing and puffing from some on the right, the effort to unseat Boehner as speaker today was written off by many as a flop. Though 25 Republican members failed to vote for their party’s leader, Boehner’s victory was never in doubt. Aided by the absence of a number of members from New York who were attending Mario Cuomo’s funeral and others who were kept away by bad weather, the final result left Boehner with a clear majority of those present (216 out of 408 there) if not of the entire House. But while the 25 anti-Boehner dissidents were a motley crew with no leader or anything remotely resembling a credible alternative candidate, the speaker was given a reminder that a not-insignificant faction of the House Republican conference sees anything other than efforts to defund offending government departments as weakness.

It can be argued that Boehner is actually in a stronger position today than he was two years ago when he was last sworn in. The increased majority won by Republicans has created a new GOP caucus that has a larger faction of reliable supporters of the speaker and his effort to govern rather than merely obstruct. Though the 25 dissenters outnumber those who voted against Boehner in January 2013, Boehner may well have more support now than he did then among Republicans.

But the ability of Gohmert, Webster, and others who lust only for combat with the White House to tie Boehner up in knots should not be underestimated and the speaker election illustrated the determination of his foes. Though there was never a chance that anyone other than Boehner would win, had so many members not been absent, the Tea Party might have been able to force a second ballot. That means that in the coming months there may be moments when obstructionists on the right will force Boehner to rely on Democratic votes to get things passed that he needs.

That creates the possibility of a perfect storm in which the right and a left led by the president will seek to forestall any genuine effort to compromise and pass tax bills or any of the other bills for which a bipartisan majority might be found.

Make no mistake about the president’s willingness to cut deals with Boehner and McConnell. The Keystone veto threat is just the tip of the iceberg of confrontation. If the president won’t compromise on an issue that he used to represent as not a particularly big deal, then there is no chance that will do so on other more important topics. With nothing to lose and imbued with the belief that the way to carve out a legacy is by executive orders and memoranda rather than compromise legislation, Obama isn’t looking for ways to accommodate Republicans. Instead, he is hoping that the Gohmert Republicans will hamstring any efforts to get majority support for bills long before legislation finds its way to his desk for him to veto.

Having spent the last Congress successfully branding the GOP leadership as a bunch of obstructionists, the truth is, Obama is actually hoping that his Tea Party allies will prevent Boehner from fulfilling his vow to pass legislation that a Senate controlled by his party won’t be burying as it did in the past four years. The real obstructionist here is a president who is so eager for confrontation that he can’t even wait until Keystone is passed to threaten a veto. The test for Boehner will be in whether he can sufficiently marginalize the gang of 25 and their sympathizers before they team up with Obama to replicate the last two years of gridlock.

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Why Politics Can’t Stop At the Water’s Edge

 Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led many Americans to re-evaluate President Obama’s mockery of those Republicans like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin’s warnings about the geo-strategic threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime posed to the West. It turns out that the administration’s assumptions about not only Russia but also about the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy were mistaken. Not only did the magic of Barack Obama’s personality fail to tame Putin, Iran, Syria or North Korea. As our Abe Greenwald noted yesterday, the administration’s belief that America had transcended history and that the use of force was ineffective has again been thoroughly exploded.

But rather than prompt a far-reaching debate about the lessons to be drawn from this episode, many pundits, not all of whom are knee-jerk Obama defenders are calling for Americans to pipe down about whether the policies of the past five years are partly responsible for the mess in Eastern Europe as well as the fiasco in Syria, not to mention the ongoing administration attempt to forge a new détente with Iran. Instead, we are being told to be quiet and to let America speak with one voice, lest Putin or any other foe be encouraged by criticism of Obama. Not for the first time, Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 quote in which he chided Republican critics of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” is being disinterred in order to give the 44th president some respite from the beating he has been taking from conservatives about his policies. Though, as Robert Lieber wrote last month in the Washington Post, Democrats have ignored that principle in the last decade, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token conservative is sounding that bipartisan theme both on “Morning Joe” and in a Politico op-ed. Scarborough argues that, “There is nothing more frightening to our enemies than a strong, unified American voice.” That’s true. But in the absence of leadership from the president and the administration, such a stance is impossible. Though loyalty to country must always trump partisanship, the effort to suppress a debate about foreign policy at a time when it is desperately needed is antithetical to the cause of creating that “strong, unified American voice.”

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 Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led many Americans to re-evaluate President Obama’s mockery of those Republicans like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin’s warnings about the geo-strategic threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime posed to the West. It turns out that the administration’s assumptions about not only Russia but also about the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy were mistaken. Not only did the magic of Barack Obama’s personality fail to tame Putin, Iran, Syria or North Korea. As our Abe Greenwald noted yesterday, the administration’s belief that America had transcended history and that the use of force was ineffective has again been thoroughly exploded.

But rather than prompt a far-reaching debate about the lessons to be drawn from this episode, many pundits, not all of whom are knee-jerk Obama defenders are calling for Americans to pipe down about whether the policies of the past five years are partly responsible for the mess in Eastern Europe as well as the fiasco in Syria, not to mention the ongoing administration attempt to forge a new détente with Iran. Instead, we are being told to be quiet and to let America speak with one voice, lest Putin or any other foe be encouraged by criticism of Obama. Not for the first time, Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 quote in which he chided Republican critics of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” is being disinterred in order to give the 44th president some respite from the beating he has been taking from conservatives about his policies. Though, as Robert Lieber wrote last month in the Washington Post, Democrats have ignored that principle in the last decade, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token conservative is sounding that bipartisan theme both on “Morning Joe” and in a Politico op-ed. Scarborough argues that, “There is nothing more frightening to our enemies than a strong, unified American voice.” That’s true. But in the absence of leadership from the president and the administration, such a stance is impossible. Though loyalty to country must always trump partisanship, the effort to suppress a debate about foreign policy at a time when it is desperately needed is antithetical to the cause of creating that “strong, unified American voice.”

Scarborough is right that “political broadsides” are out of place “when the tanks are rolling.” But what’s happening in the Ukraine is not a replay of the Cold War confrontation with the Soviets about Berlin or the Cuban Missile Crisis, let alone a crisis when U.S. troops are on the move. The point about what is happening in the Ukraine is that both America’s friends and its foes take it for granted that the U.S. is out of the business of trying to defend freedom, whether in places where our military can make a difference or those, like in Ukraine, where we know it is not possible.

Given the hyper-partisan nature of our current political culture that is exacerbated by an equally divided media, it is hard to imagine the revival of the kind of bipartisanship that Vandenberg embodied under any circumstances. But in the absence of either strong leadership or an articulation of core American principles by the president it is impossible.

Were President Obama showing the kind of courage in standing up to Putin that other presidents of both political parties demonstrated in past disputes with the Russians, criticism of his foreign policy could and would be put off until later. But asking critics to be silent when no such effort to unify the country or to stand up for the interests of U.S. friends and allies is being put forward by the administration is itself mere partisan hogwash.

A debate about foreign policy is needed precisely because what we are witnessing is the product of a feckless foreign policy that primarily views geostrategic foes such as Russia and Iran as candidates for appeasement rather than dangerous enemies to be faced down with strength. For many liberals, Obama’s weakness is an asset to be applauded as they support his vision of a world in which American exceptionalism is mere chauvinism. However, this unilateral moral disarmament has severe consequences. Putin doesn’t need to listen to conservative criticisms of the president’s foreign policy to understand that Obama’s naïve conception of global politics to be encouraged to violate international law. He already came to that conclusion before he invaded the Ukraine.

Politics must now extend beyond the water’s edge not because conservatives wish to cripple administration efforts to defend American interests — as was so often the case in the past when the left treated anti-American forces as victims to be sympathized with rather than enemies to be despised — but because they want Obama to start behaving like someone who believes in his nation’s cause.

Far from undermining the president’s ability to deal with Putin or Iran, a debate about his policies is the starting point for a recovery of American strength. What Putin expects, indeed, what he is counting on, is the kind of apathy about Obama’s foreign policy that has allowed the president to evade accountability for stances that undermined allies and appeased foes for years. After years of being told, both by the left and some on the right that America can afford to retreat from the world stage, a vigorous discussion of foreign policy and the mistakes made by this administration isn’t a political luxury; it’s a necessity.

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We Need Choices, Not Faux Bipartisanship

In the last few days, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie became every Democrat’s favorite Republican. Christie praised President Obama’s help for the Garden State during the hurricane and then rightly expressed disinterest in whether Mitt Romney would helicopter in for an unnecessary photo op. The photo of the president and the governor shaking hands has become the new symbol of bipartisanship as the two worked together to support the rescue and recovery operations. But anyone who thinks this is a model to heal the deep divide between liberals and conservatives on many basic issues is dead wrong.

Politicians should work together when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. After all, there is no — or at least shouldn’t be — a Democrat or Republican approach to helping those rendered homeless or to ensuring public safety in an emergency. Were they to fail to do so under these circumstances, it would be cause for severe criticism. In this case, both Obama and Christie were merely doing their duty, not performing some amazing or unprecedented task.

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In the last few days, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie became every Democrat’s favorite Republican. Christie praised President Obama’s help for the Garden State during the hurricane and then rightly expressed disinterest in whether Mitt Romney would helicopter in for an unnecessary photo op. The photo of the president and the governor shaking hands has become the new symbol of bipartisanship as the two worked together to support the rescue and recovery operations. But anyone who thinks this is a model to heal the deep divide between liberals and conservatives on many basic issues is dead wrong.

Politicians should work together when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. After all, there is no — or at least shouldn’t be — a Democrat or Republican approach to helping those rendered homeless or to ensuring public safety in an emergency. Were they to fail to do so under these circumstances, it would be cause for severe criticism. In this case, both Obama and Christie were merely doing their duty, not performing some amazing or unprecedented task.

But this much-welcomed new era of good feelings has nothing to do with the real issues that cause gridlock in Washington. On issues like ObamaCare, spending, taxes and the debt the differences between the parties are not a function of oversized political egos or clashing personalities but of basic principles. What those who urge bipartisanship often really want is for one side to abandon their principles and to adopt those of their opponents. That was the defining characteristic of “moderate Republicans” for much of the second half of the 20th century as they acquiesced to much of the liberal project and did nothing to reform it. While it is understandable that liberals would miss this thankfully almost extinct breed of bipartisans, their nostalgia has nothing to do with good government and everything to do with their desire to go back to winning arguments against opponents who wouldn’t stand up to them.

For too much of our political history, bipartisanship was just a nice way of saying that a significant portion of one of our two major parties agreed with their opponents on some of the big issues facing the republic. Prior to the Civil War, there was a lot of bipartisanship as Southern Whigs agreed with both Northern and Southern Democrats that slavery should not be disturbed. It was those annoying Northern Whigs who morphed into the nascent Republican Party that upset that consensus and were blamed for starting all the commotion that led to war. A similar kind of bipartisanship preserved the Jim Crow south in the following century. Though one shouldn’t compare slavery to modern liberalism, what those moderate Republicans often did was to offer no alternative to the left, a state of affairs that suited Democrats just fine.

If many in today’s contemporary Republican Party are not willing to do the “go along to get along” routine in the Capitol it is not because they are any more obnoxious than the Democrats. It is because they see the country heading over a fiscal cliff of spending and taxing that is sinking our economy now and crippling our future.

Some of these conservatives have sometimes overplayed their hand, as they did in 2011 during the debt-ceiling crisis. But they were far from alone in making mistakes during that summer, as President Obama was as guilty of avoiding reasonable compromises. Indeed, while the Tea Partiers were sometimes stuck in an ideological corner into which they had painted themselves, the president’s purpose seemed to be to goad them into open conflict so as to enhance his own political prospects.

The current House Republican majority was elected in 2010 to oppose the agenda of the Democrats who controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress for the previous two years, not to play along with it. While Bill Clinton listened to the people and sought to compromise with the GOP Congress that was elected in 1994, Obama dug in his heels and asked for another stimulus boondoggle and refused to alter ObamaCare. Thus we were left with a standoff that could only be resolved by another election.

On Tuesday, the people will decide whether they want more government or less, Democrats or Republicans. Bipartisanship on issues where there is no real disagreement needs no encouragement. But what we need is a resolution of those issues where we do disagree via the democratic process. If the voters can’t fully make up their minds and give us another round of divided government, those in charge will, out of necessity, have to deal with each other. But that is the fallback position, not the ideal. What we need is not a muddled and unprincipled political class dealing with each other but advocates of differing policies standing up and offering the voters clear choices. This is exactly the philosophy that the tough-talking Christie has advocated the GOP to adopt. For that we need elections, not hurricanes.

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