America's dangerous "partisan" myth: Here's what (and who) is really dividing us

There has been one insurmountable impediment to compromise in the Obama era, and it goes by the initials G.O.P.

Published October 22, 2014 10:58AM (EDT)

John Boehner, Mitch McConnell                                                            (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

NBC News’ Mark Murray wrote a piece this past weekend looking at political polarization in the country, which he says is “more divided today than it has been in decades. And it’s likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.” It’s hard to argue with that assessment, but his examination of the current climate of partisan warfare falls victim to the seemingly unavoidable trap of distributing blame equally among all actors.

Under the heading “How Obama’s presidency and today’s GOP made things worse,” Murray writes that Obama was elected on the promise of post-partisan consensus building, as reflected in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, but the reality has been far different:

Strikingly, this wave of increased polarization has peaked during the presidency of Barack Obama – who first stepped onto the national stage with his unifying speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.

“There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America,” he said in that speech. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”

But since the nation’s first African-American president was elected, it’s been one partisan fight after another. The stimulus. Health care. The debt ceiling. Immigration. Foreign policy. And now even Ebola.

Of course, Obama is only part of this current story. The other part is that Republicans and the Tea Party refused to compromise – especially on a health-care law largely based on Republican Mitt Romney’s achievement in Massachusetts.

Indeed, as journalist Robert Draper wrote, key Republicans – Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, Jim DeMint – had a dinner the night of Obama’s inauguration plotting the way to sink his presidency by opposing, well, everything.

“Republicans never wanted to give Obama a chance. But he never wanted to compromise, either,” Rothenberg says.

I’m the first to admit that Obama oversold himself in that speech and set an impossibly high standard for a man with presidential ambitions. Presidents don’t get things done by appealing to the hokey, “aw shucks we’re all in this together, fellas” mind-set of Congress. They get things done by cutting deals and hamstringing opponents and abandoning allies when convenient. Obama does all those things, the flowery rhetoric of his younger years notwithstanding.

Which is why it’s absolutely maddening to see Stuart Rothenberg quoted as the final word on this issue bemoaning Obama’s supposed unwillingness to compromise as a complementary dysfunction to the GOP’s bad behavior. It’s even more maddening to see Rothenberg's assessment included after Murray acknowledged that Republicans in Congress made it their plan from before Day One to oppose Obama on anything and everything and not compromise.

On each of the “partisan fights” listed in the piece that have come to define the Obama presidency, you can find the same pattern emerging: the president making concessions and backing away from allies and trying to get the Republicans on board, and the Republicans remaining in defiant opposition and refusing to even entertain the notion of compromise (unless their hand is forced by a looming crisis, in which case they allow themselves to be dragged over the finish line).

And from this dynamic, somehow, we arrive at blaming both sides for Washington's inability to compromise.

The Stimulus

The month Barack Obama assumed the office of the presidency, the economy lost nearly 800,000 jobs. In the two preceding months, it had lost nearly 1.5 million jobs. Pretty much everyone agreed that something had to be done, but there was disagreement on what that action would look like. Obama wanted spending on infrastructure projects and new green energy initiatives and other public investments, because that’s what Democrats generally want, but also because they’re pretty good at stimulating the economy. The Republicans wanted tax cuts, because that’s what Republicans want, even though they’re not the best short-term economic stimulus (just ask Sam Brownback).

Before he took office, Obama began outlining the contours of the federal stimulus package he wanted to get passed, reached out to Republican leaders (then in the minority in both houses of Congress) for their ideas, and threw in a bunch of tax cuts to draw in GOP support for the legislation. “I think he's already been listening to the suggestions we've made,” Mitch McConnell said after initial talks. Much was made at the time of Obama, during negotiations, pressing his advantage over the GOP by reminding them “I won,” but the truth of the matter is that while Obama did have the stronger hand, he was willing to make concessions to gain passage of the bill, and ended up having to do exactly that. To earn the bare minimum of Republican support needed to get the bill past a Senate filibuster, the White House had to swallow steep cuts to state education programs and other liberal priorities.

The Republicans, meanwhile, were negotiating in bad faith. No matter what Obama threw at them, the House GOP leadership had already decided to oppose him. As NBC noted in its piece, the strategy they adopted from before the beginning of the Obama administration was to fight Obama on everything and work to retake Congress in 2010. Then-Minority Whip Eric Cantor successfully corralled every single member of the House Republican caucus into voting against the stimulus package. “We’re not here to cut deals and get crumbs and stay in the minority for another 40 years,” Cantor said at the time. Only three Senate Republicans – moderates all, one of whom officially became a Democrat months later – voted for the stimulus.

It’s actually pretty amazing that the Republicans don’t get more grief for their dangerously reckless behavior in the first months of the Obama administration when the economy was falling to pieces. The GOP, eyes on 2010, was ready to reject everything the administration offered to halt the skid. If not for a few malleable RINOs in the Senate Republican caucus, things might have been much worse.


Ah, the Affordable Care Act. It’s the most controversial piece of legislation ever passed in the history of mankind and the universe, and a horribly partisan bill that the White House and the Democrats “rammed down the throats” of Average Joe American.

Or so we were told over and over by Republicans and conservatives. Largely absent from the discussion of the Affordable Care Act is the fact that this “big government socialist takeover of the health care industry” is actually a pretty conservative piece of legislation. And even less remarked upon is the degree to which Obama sought out Republican input for his healthcare proposals.

The road from vague notions of “healthcare reform” to the concrete reality of the Affordable Care Act was marked by disappointment after disappointment by the White House’s progressive allies, who swallowed hard as pie-in-the-sky dreams of single-payer dissolved into the tepid hope of a “public option,” which dissolved further into grudging acceptance of a healthcare law that has a long GOP pedigree and was pioneered by the former Republican governor of Massachusetts. That pedigree is the reason why the law was studded with Republican healthcare reform ideas – something Republicans refuse to admit as they claim that the law was drafted without their input. That’s also part of the reason why the Republicans, as yet, have not coalesced around an alternative to the Affordable Care Act – everything they come up with ends up looking like Obamacare.

President Obama sought out the Republicans and asked them for ideas during the drafting process. “I believe they’re making an honest and overt effort to deal with Republicans,” Rep. Mike Castle said at the time. (Castle would go on to lose the 2010 Delaware Senate primary to living Tea Party caricature Christine O’Donnell.) Over and over, again and again, Obama tried to bring Republicans to the table and offered compromises on healthcare. And each time he was met with the same answer: no. “What they want isn't a bill that incorporates their ideas,” Ezra Klein wrote of the GOP in 2010. “They've already got that. What they want is no bill at all. And that's a hard position for the White House to compromise with.”

The Debt Ceiling

The Great Debt Ceiling Debacle of 2011 came to pass for one reason: The Republicans were willing to hold the economic health of the country hostage in order to force the administration to agree to spending cuts. It ended because President Obama, confronted with Republican intransigence and the prospect of the nation defaulting on its debts, signed onto a compromise package that gave the Republicans much of what they wanted while giving little in return. The bill also gave birth to budget sequestration: the spending cuts that came on top of the deal’s other spending cuts, and the basis for yet more partisan bickering the following year.

Subsequent debt ceiling fights have been precipitated by that same spirit of GOP intransigence, though they ended largely as a consequence of Republicans overplaying their hand and being forced to back down.

Really, the debt ceiling is a strange example to bring up when arguing that Barack Obama refuses to compromise, since he made a huge concession to the GOP in the 2011 debt ceiling fight that had lasting economic ramifications, and which ticked off progressives in Congress, the media, and all other corners of public life.


Again, I don’t really see how the fight over immigration policy is supposed to show anything but how the Republicans deliberately set out to poison it. Obama won reelection in 2012 with strong backing from Hispanic voters, and after the election, Republicans in Congress (spooked by Mitt Romney’s terrible showing with Hispanics) suddenly found themselves very amenable to comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate, in an absurdly rare flash of bipartisan action, passed a comprehensive reform bill in the summer of 2013 with the backing of honest-to-goodness conservatives like Marco Rubio. John Boehner promised the House GOP would pass its own bill. The Republican National Committee was bullish on comprehensive reform passing, the White House was pushing for the Senate bill’s passage – all the stars seemed aligned for immigration reform to finally happen.

Then the House Republicans killed it. That’s the long and the short of the matter. The House Republican caucus, anxious to avoid being tarred with the dreaded “amnesty” epithet by the nativist wing of their party, let immigration reform die on the vine. President Obama gave Boehner and the House GOP all the space and the time they needed to craft a bill, he amped up enforcement of immigration laws to try to woo GOP legislators, and he alienated his own allies by continually pushing off executive action. And it was all for nothing because the Republicans in the House refused to play ball.


I’m not sure what NBC’s invocation of “foreign policy” this is in reference to – “foreign policy” covers a lot of ground – so we’ll just skip to Ebola. There’s not a whole lot to be said on the Ebola front, since it’s a new and ongoing issue. But on the basic points, the dynamic remains the same. Republicans (and some jittery Democrats) are demanding that a travel ban be put in place on countries in West Africa that are struggling with epidemics. It’s terrible policy and pretty much every public health expert agrees that a ban would only make things worse, so it’s not readily apparent why Obama would want to compromise in this situation. But, as we’ve demonstrated, Obama does have a knack for ceding ground to the opposition and getting nothing in return, so it could very well happen.

The president did respond to Republican demands to appoint an Ebola czar. And immediately after making the appointment, Republicans criticized him for appointing an Ebola czar.

What this all boils down to is that Obama and the Republicans are being held to different standards of “compromise” simply so the conditions of “blaming both sides” can be satisfied whenever there’s a breakdown of basic governance. Obama continually demonstrates a willingness to offer compromise measures, anger his base and alienate allies, all with an eye on getting his agenda passed. The Republicans dig in, reject all offers, offer nothing in return, often refuse to allow the basic functions of government to take place, and “compromise” only when conditions are such that the alternative is literal economic catastrophe.

In the end, the president ends up being blamed for not being able to compromise with the GOP, when the GOP’s idea of “compromise” is “we get everything we want or else.”

By Simon Maloy

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