America's "bipartisan" delusion: How the White House learned to ignore Republicans

President Obama soared to office promising to reach across the aisle. Here's why he finally quit wasting his time

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 10, 2015 6:44PM (EDT)

Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.          (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

In a piece published earlier this week, Jonathan Chait at NY Magazine conducted an exit with Dan Pfeiffer, a top presidential advisor who's been with him since the 2008 campaign. He has a lot of interesting insights into the political battles of the past 6 years, but this revelation is particularly fascinating in light of the relationship the administration has had with the progressive base of the party:

The original premise of Obama’s first presidential campaign was that he could reason with Republicans—or else, by staking out obviously reasonable stances, force them to moderate or be exposed as extreme and unyielding. It took years for the White House to conclude that this was false, and that, in Pfeiffer’s words, “what drives 90 percent of stuff is not the small tactical decisions or the personal relationships but the big, macro political incentives.”

If you had to pinpoint the moment this worldview began to crystallize, it would probably be around the first debt-ceiling showdown, in 2011, when Obama tried repeatedly and desperately to cut a budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner only to realize, eventually, that Boehner did not have the power to negotiate. The administration has now decided that in many cases, even adversarial bargaining fails because the Republican leadership is not capable of planning tactically. “You have to be careful not to presume a lot of strategy for this group,” Pfeiffer said. “I’ve always believed that the fundamental, driving strategic ethos of the Republican House leadership has been, What do we do to get through the next caucus or conference without getting yelled at? We should never assume they have a long game. We used to spend a lot of time thinking that maybe Boehner is saying this to get himself some more room. And it’s like, no, that’s not actually the case. Usually he’s just saying it because he just said it or it’s the easiest thing to solve his immediate problem.”

This analysis puts the administration at odds with the reading of American politics that still dominates much of Washington reporting. Many political journalists imagine that the basic tension for the White House lies between Obama’s liberal base and appealing to Americans at the center, who will be crucial for tipping elections.

Pfeiffer believes the dynamic is, in fact, the opposite: “The incentive structure moves from going after the diminishing middle to motivating the base.” Ever since Republicans took control of the House four years ago, attempts to court Republicans have mostly failed while simultaneously dividing Democratic voters. Obama’s most politically successful maneuvers, by contrast, have all been unilateral and liberal. “Whenever we contemplate bold progressive action,” Pfeiffer said, “whether that’s the president’s endorsement of marriage equality, or coming out strong on power-plant rules to reduce current pollution, on immigration, on net neutrality, you get a lot of hemming and hawing in advance about what this is going to mean: Is this going to alienate people? Is this going to hurt the president’s approval ratings? What will this mean in red states?” And yet this hesitation has always proved overblown: “There’s never been a time when we’ve taken progressive action and regretted it.”

This was deeply at odds with the lesson Bill Clinton and most of his aides (many of whom staffed Obama’s administration) had taken away from his presidency. But by the beginning of Obama’s second term, at least, the president seemed fully convinced. “As we were preparing for the potential that we would lose the midterms,” Pfeiffer told me, “a lot of the advice we got around town was, You have to show major contrition; heads have to roll; you have to give some sop to the Republicans. The president’s view was, No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to go out and we’re going to be the opposite of contrite; we’re going to be aggressive in our policies and our politics. And that worked. It caused people to cheer. But that’s the exact opposite of the sort of advice you’d get in this town.”

Pfeiffer is correct. And it's exactly what political activists who aren't in that town had been saying for years. Despite the idealism of the campaign and the genuine excitement and emotion about President Obama, some progressives were queasy about all these promises of "transpartisan" comity, knowing as they did that it was highly unlikely that any president could single-handedly change this structure much less one who so offended a great swathe of the GOP base.  They did not understand how anyone couldn't see that the modern Republican Party had gone insane and that every incentive and structural political edifice out there made it impossible for them not to be insane.

Progressives knew there was no margin in trying to appease Republicans and that all attempts to try merely moved the political center further to the right. That had been the pattern since the 90s when the Republicans were crazy enough to detonate the nuclear option of impeachment over illicit sex when the president only had two years left on his term. They followed that up by unapologetically using threats and every lever of political power they had, including the Supreme Court, to install George W. Bush even though he'd lost the popular vote in the country. They went to war with a nation that hadn't attacked us out of sheer opportunism. And yet it took Boehner not being able to deliver on Simpson-Bowles to convince them that maybe these people weren't quite operating in good faith?

But perhaps more importantly, it was those same progressives (whom the White House press secretary derisively called "The Professional Left") who argued for a continued focus on progressive initiatives instead of "pivoting" to the Grand Bargain once Obamacare passed. After managing to pass that and the stimulus they begged the president to keep going in that progressive direction. After all, it was crystal clear that no matter what he did, the Republicans weren't going to play ball --- they had dug in their heels even in the face of a catastrophic economic meltdown. Since the only outcome was bound to be stalemate, why not try to advance progressive ideas and move the country with him? (Certainly going the opposite direction and putting the essential safety net on the menu was a terrible precedent only Frank Underwood could love.)

The fact that the administration did finally come to realize all this, however, is why a number of progressives who had been frustrated with the administration's congressional negotiations have softened their criticism in the last couple of years. Unfortunately, it is not clear that the Democratic establishment and liberal intelligentsia have absorbed this lesson. One still hears hear shrill pronouncements that the problem is the presidency is impotent and that people who want a progressive agenda are tilting at windmills. Perhaps this interview with Pfeiffer will go some way toward letting them know that they are operating on some old assumptions.

The good news is that President Obama is going to leave the political field in a year in a half with a more progressive agenda in play (in most, but not all, areas) and that's a good thing. So, what about going forward? Has Hillary Clinton learned the same lessons?

It's not clear that she has. No doubt she understands the ruthlessness of the enemy and knows the political media aren't prepared to cut her any slack. Assuming she survives the inevitable onslaught of Clinton scandals, she is certainly under no illusions that if she wins the White House the Republicans will meet her halfway. (Her husband, after all, was impeached for his trouble.) But the question is will she understand, as the Obama administration belatedly came to do, that her fortunes (and ours) rest on adopting an unabashed progressive agenda and fighting for it?

It's impossible to tell since she hasn't yet started campaigning. But her record in the Senate and the Obama administration suggests that she is more oriented toward centrism when it comes to economics, foreign policy, and national security. (She'll likely lean progressive on social policy and be particularly good on women's issues.) Is she still among those who fret and worry, "is this going to alienate people? Is this going to hurt the president’s approval ratings? What will this mean in red states?" We don't know. But it's vital that she's asked or her win could result in eight years of further right wing empowerment.

It's not enough to just know the enemy, although that it vital and necessary.  A Democratic president also has to know her friends and allies and recruit them in the effort.  Simply being ruthlessly attacked by the right wing is no longer an assurance of progressive support. After 20 years, everyone knows that's a given and that there is no appeasing them. Today, progressives know that they are part of a growing and vital coalition while the Republicans are aging and raging at the dying of their light. And despite the congressional gridlock, or perhaps because of it,  they expect a Democratic president to at least fight for progressive values and interests if only to keep the national debate from slipping further rightward in an era which should, by all rights, be going the other way. And as Pfeiffer suggested when he said “there’s never been a time when we’ve taken progressive action and regretted it," it might even feel good.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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