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Tilting at Windmills

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February 20, 2009

WHEN THE MESSAGE REACHES THE INTENDED AUDIENCE.... Michael Tomasky makes the case this week that when President Obama reached out to Republicans during the debate over economic stimulus, the minority party wasn't the intended audience.

The standard criticism of Obama's bipartisan outreach goes like this. He met with Republicans on Capitol Hill. They stiffed him. They showed that they're impossibly troglodytic. Why should he waste any more time on these people? Just crush them.

But here's the thing. This criticism, and this entire debate about the efficacy of his bipartisan overtures, presumes that Obama's audience for his bipartisan talk is the Republicans in Congress and the conservatives in Washington.

But that is not his intended audience. His audience is the country.

True, he went to see congressional Republicans in an attempt to fire up the peace pipe. Well, as Barry Goldwater famously said, you have to go to hunting where the ducks are. But I think that even those meetings were conducted only partially for the benefit of those Republicans. They were conducted for citizens, so they could see that he was trying something different.

Kevin finds this more persuasive than I do, arguing that the efforts at bipartisanship were "almost entirely about optics," allowing the president to "bask in warm national glow of having tried his best."

But putting aside whether this was the deliberate strategy the White House had in mind, if it was the goal, did it have the desired effect? Apparently, yes.

A national AP poll (pdf) released yesterday found that 62% of Americans believe the president is doing enough to reach out to congressional Republicans. In contrast, the same poll found that only 27% of the public believes the GOP is doing to enough to cooperate with Obama. (On a related note, congressional Democrats enjoy a 49% approval rating; for congressional Republicans, it's 33%.)

Even Fox News' latest poll (pdf) showed similar results. Asked if the president "has sincerely tried to reach out to Republicans and be bipartisan," 66% of respondents said he has. Asked the same of Republicans, only 33% agreed. (The same poll found congressional Democrats with a 46% approval rating, 12 points higher than the GOP's 34%.)

If the intended audience is the electorate, the White House is probably pleased. And if congressional Republicans think they're finally scoring points ("Back in the Saddle") with their tactics, they're mistaken.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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It's a matter of party over country for Republicans.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline on February 20, 2009 at 8:52 AM | PERMALINK

I think Tomasky is mostly right. They don't really need GOP votes, but reaching out for them is worth the try because the public likes it and it drives wedges into the GOP when people break rank.
Diehard House Repubs will be open to deadly attacks in 2010 if the bills they now proudly oppose improve conditions in their states, which is likely. The more attempts at bipartisanship they rebuff, the worse they will end up looking.

Posted by: Richard Greenslade on February 20, 2009 at 8:55 AM | PERMALINK

The republicans are really making fools of themselves as well as being seen as obstructionists. What with Steele and his hip hop plans and Cantor who puts his foot squarely in his mouth every time he opens it, and they are acting like prima donnas over the stimulus, pouting about whether to take it or not. I would like to see more in the media about which states are so called welfare states, who are right now living off the taxes of the other states,
they seen to be mostly republican, the same republicans that don't want to help innocent victims of the mortgage crisis.

Posted by: JS on February 20, 2009 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

Who gives a crap? The proof is whether any of this works. The big picture grows immensely more dire by the day. Gloating over any of this PR shit is just nonsense.

Posted by: lou on February 20, 2009 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

It's Republicans, not John Q Public that don't understand bipartisanship. Bipartisanship is a 2 way street. Both (bolded & underlined) sides reach out and give up to get back.

In a way this whole thing is a near perfect illustration about how the "inside the beltway" mentality is completely out of sync with the rest of America.

Posted by: ET on February 20, 2009 at 9:03 AM | PERMALINK

If Obama had wanted optics, he could have suggested that the Senate Dems refuse to let the AMT fix be part of the stimulus package. The Republicans could not have afforded to block the bill. They desperately wanted Obama to own the problem. Instead he gave up quite a bit, and it was the Republicans who got more than a fair amount, while appearing to be totally against it. This leaves Reps with the chance to later claim that either it didn't work and it was the Dems' fault, or that it wasn't necessary and the economy was merely in one of its cycles.

Posted by: Danp on February 20, 2009 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

It's rare that I prefer Drum's analysis to Benen's, but some of us have been saying for weeks that the most important target here is the electorate, on whose perspectives Obama's conduct has a great deal of influence, rather than the GOP, whose intransigent behavior Obama cannot hope to control.

No doubt Obama hoped that he'd get more Republican support than he did. But he certainly knew that either way, the average voter would see him as having tried and the GOP as operating in totally bad faith. That the polls should reflect that view to this extent--a very healthy 66%--even after the Villagers' and GOP's constant whining about Obama's insufficient bipartisanship is nothing short of a miracle. It probably illustrates both epidemic disgust with the GOP and Obama's unquestionable skill at reaching voters even when he can't get through to Republicans.

Posted by: shortstop on February 20, 2009 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

Wow. Even people who think Nazis were socialists are finally seeing the truth about the Republiscum.

Posted by: Personal Failure on February 20, 2009 at 9:06 AM | PERMALINK

I am in Kevin's camp on this one. It has been a sublime pleasure to behold, too. Every time those idiots crow about getting a checker to the king row, Obama says "checkmate."

Posted by: Blue Girl on February 20, 2009 at 9:13 AM | PERMALINK

Of course the country was the intended target for Obama's attempt at constructively engaging Republicans. And the public judged the effort a success because the President 1.) sincerely tried to reach out and 2.) offered real concessions in the firm of tax cuts -- unlike Republicans whose "alternative" stimulus package was undistilled GOP tax-cut orthodoxy. Only a Washington political culture obsessed with winning and losing judged Obama's genuine attempt at bi-partisanship by the useless measurement of how many Republican votes he was able to get. Didn't all those smart people in DC find it ludicrous that they put Republicans in complete charge of judging whether the Democratic president's efforts had been a success. And by that measure, just why were all these smart people surprised when Republicans -- for their own political purposes -- planted a goose egg on the president that the RNC Chairman called "beautiful."

Posted by: Ted Frier on February 20, 2009 at 9:24 AM | PERMALINK

Barack Obama is a lucky politician. Even when things, such as "bipartisanship", don't work out the way he'd planned, they still have a way of working out pretty well for him. And this is not in any way meant as a slam. Just as Napoleon wanted lucky generals, we surely need a lucky President right now. Let's hope his luck continues to hold.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on February 20, 2009 at 9:45 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, indeedy. Obama is lucky the way George W. Bush is unlucky.

Posted by: shortstop on February 20, 2009 at 9:50 AM | PERMALINK

I think Tomasky is entirely right.

You remember when the Republican convention in 2000 featured countless African Americans? That wasn't designed to reach out fo black voters, it was designed to convince middle-class white suburbanites that the GOP wasn't a party of racists. And it worked.

Same thing here.

Posted by: TR on February 20, 2009 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

Obama has played the Republicans by simply showing up for the game. He showed up, fit and ready, in uniform, and played by the rules. The other team came out and played badly, played dirty, tried to cheat, held shirts, mocked the umpires, fouled out and refused to leave the court. Here in the stands, it's pretty obvious who ruined the game.

And lou, when I read this: "The big picture grows immensely more dire by the day. Gloating over any of this PR shit is just nonsense," it makes me wonder why this argument was never used regarding the Iraq War, oh say anytime between March 2003 and December 2007. Any ideas?

Posted by: Capt Kirk on February 20, 2009 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

Capt Kirk puts it beautifully: "Here in the stands, it's pretty obvious who ruined the game."

Obama's skill at the game is geared not only to break the Republican's ideological hold on the electorate by showing up Republicans as liars and cheats with no concern about the welfare of the country. I submit that he's also making the talking heads of the DC punditocracy look like fools, too. He's on the track to actually change conventional wisdom.

Sure, it'll take time. A lot of time. But Obama has shown that he's patient and plays the long game.

Posted by: Zandru on February 20, 2009 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

Why is it either or? He honestly wanted to show good faith, and meet the republicans where they were. If they vote for it great, if not the electorate will still appreciate the sincere effort. Why is this so difficult to understand?

Posted by: crack on February 20, 2009 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

Why is it either or? He honestly wanted to show good faith, and meet the republicans where they were. If they vote for it great, if not the electorate will still appreciate the sincere effort. Why is this so difficult to understand?

It ain't for me.

Posted by: shortstop on February 20, 2009 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Unfortunately, it is aiding the Republicans in their home districts and with their core clientele -- the backward southerners and fundies who put them there in the first place, the crowd who believes ideology uber alles.

Posted by: Vincent on February 20, 2009 at 10:34 AM | PERMALINK

I don't think the electorate is fooled by attempts to equate opposition to porculus with partisanship. Duh, we're really stupid and easily manipulated by BS from Democrats.

Judgement day will be on:
1. The direction of the economy.
2. Whether porculus is perceived as helping the economy or hurting it if the economy gets worse.
3. Whether Obama and the Democrats will be credited if the economy gets better. Oftentimes there is no particular logic to this. A coach often gets credit or blame for a team's performance even if he is irrelevant and the win/loss record is completely dependent on the abilities of the players.

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Wholesale-inflation-takes-apf-14410311.html
"Wholesale inflation takes biggest jump in 6 months"

Posted by: Luther on February 20, 2009 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

I agree with Steve; it is best to be both lucky and smart, but if a leader can choose, it is better to be lucky than smart.

Posted by: Steve High on February 20, 2009 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

What shortstop said @ 9:05 AM.

Posted by: Gregory on February 20, 2009 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

I'm glad we can all agree it was excellent politics for Mr. O to water down the stimulus bill to the point where economists like Krugman and Stiglitz think it may only just be sufficient to stave off disaster. Go, team!

Posted by: scott on February 20, 2009 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

Tomasky is right, and so (as usual) is Hendrik Hertzberg:

Fifty years ago, the civil-rights movement understood that nonviolence can be an effective weapon even if—or especially if—the other side refuses to follow suit. Obama has a similarly tough-minded understanding of the political uses of bipartisanship, which, even if it fails as a tactic for compromise, can succeed as a tonal strategy: once the other side makes itself appear intransigently, destructively partisan, the game is half won. Obama is learning to throw the ball harder. But it’s not Rovian hardball he’s playing. More like Gandhian hardball.
Bonus brilliant Hertzberg snark: "A Republican governor, you might say, is sort of like a Republican congressman—except with actual responsibilities."

Posted by: Tom Hilton on February 20, 2009 at 11:39 AM | PERMALINK
"Wholesale inflation takes biggest jump in 6 months"
Whew! Thanks for mentioning that, Luther. I've been hiding under my covers for weeks now, for fear of deflation. Posted by: kenga on February 20, 2009 at 11:43 AM | PERMALINK

I'd just like to say that I was one of the ones saying this the whole time. This came out almost exactly as I predicted, particularly in how popular opinion would be with Obama.

In fact, my only puzzlement is why any of you imagined Obama could have done things any differently. He had been hyping post-partisanship for over a year. Had he not reached out to Republicans, he would have looked like a lying fool. This was one of the most important parts of his platform, yet many liberals insisted that he not do it. That made no sense. He had no choice. And things worked out pretty damn well for him. Obama looks great, Dems look good, and Republicans look like angry idiots. And had Congressional Dems gone stronger on this, we'd have done even better. Having Franken in the Senate would have helped too.

One thing that can never be forgotten: Not all political attacks are equal. Just because Republicans will blast us doesn't mean we should fear the blast. Quite often, the blast backfires and makes them look worse, as we saw happen with McCain repeatedly. Republican partisanship while denouncing Obama for being partisan was another such blast. While the Broders might believe in it, the average American doesn't. But had Obama done what many liberals insisted he do, these attacks would have made sense and might have worked. But as it was, Obama did the right thing and Republicans look the worse for having attacked him. Just like I've been saying the whole time.

Posted by: Doctor Biobrain on February 20, 2009 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

Barack Obama is a lucky politician. Even when things, such as "bipartisanship", don't work out the way he'd planned, they still have a way of working out pretty well for him

Luck?!? LaBonne, this is exactly what many of us were predicting the whole time. This wasn't luck. This was exactly how politics work. And for saying this, we were repeatedly accused of being koolaid drinking Obama idiots; merely for suggesting that Obama might actually have had a plan. Anyone who didn't agree that Obama's "kumbaya" routine wasn't going to be a failure was denounced as a braindead idiot.

But this was entirely predictable. Just as Obama's win over McCain was entirely predictable. The question isn't why Obama is doing so well, but why we weren't doing better earlier. The Republicans were fools. The only "luck" here is that we finally got a political leader who realizes that and knows how to take advantage of it. The sooner liberals stop fearing these fools, the better. They were never worthy adversaries and the rout will only get bigger. Had it not been for 9/11, these idiots would have been powerless years earlier.

Posted by: Doctor Biobrain on February 20, 2009 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

This leaves Reps with the chance to later claim that either it didn't work and it was the Dems' fault, or that it wasn't necessary and the economy was merely in one of its cycles.

Danp - That's what was going to happen in any case. Whether Republicans supported the bill, or if Obama got everything he wanted; Republicans were ALWAYS going to make the claim you suggest. After all, it's the same claim we make every time Republicans insist that Bush's tax cuts averted a deeper recession. That's just how the game is played. Besides, it might be the truth.

We're never going to get Republicans to stop attacking us or praise our policies; just as we'll never do that for them. There are no political options to make that happen. The best we can do is deny legitimacy to their arguments and Obama is quite adept at doing that. But they'll never surrender or admit that Obama's policies worked. That's not an attainable goal.

Posted by: Doctor Biobrain on February 20, 2009 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

If the intended audience is the electorate, the White House is probably pleased.

Not only that, by getting the 3 Republicans to vote for his stimulus he was also successful.

The point of debate and engagement isn't to win over your opponents but to win over the undecided while keeping your supporters. Obama did both of those.

Posted by: MatthewRMarler on February 20, 2009 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

"A coach often gets credit or blame for a team's performance even if he is irrelevant and the win/loss record is completely dependent on the abilities of the players."

Sheeah, don't tell this Husker fan that coaches are irrelevant.

Bo Pelini took Bill Callahan's team and brought it back from the frickin' dead.

Isn't it the coaches who develop said players' abilities? Who set the tone of how the team plays together, and how hard they practice?

Posted by: 2Manchu on February 20, 2009 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Did even ONE rational person think that Obama's advisors had not considered - AND THOROUGHLY DISCUSSED - that the GOP would blow Obama off?

Of course they did.

And of course Obama went to that dinner with Krauthammer, et al, UNoblivious to that likelihood.

And of course Obama reached across the aisle knowing that the likelihood was that he would later get 'played' by the GOP.

What even minimally astute politician would have thought the GOP would actually toss off 8 years (or 28, depending on how you are counting) of wacko-ness and see the light of rational thinking and do what was good for the country?

Any pol would have known that being seen to reach out an olive branch when the country is in terrible straits - puts the opposition in a no-win situation: They either end up looking like Simon Legree/The Grinch or they come over to your side. And either way, YOU WIN.

It was completely amusing to watch all my Progressive brothers and sisters 'gnash their teeth' and 'rend their cloth' (if I may use Biblical terms ala Bill Murray in Ghostbusters) over Obama's 'miscalculation'.

The cool thing was watching Obama not even make a big deal out of any of it - - not the dinner, not the rejection of his 'bipartisan' overtures, and certainly not the GOP making complete asses of themselves, fighting to see who could hurt their constituents more, this GOP jagoff or that one.

Obama just laid the trap and they fell into it.

And he came off looking (gasp!) Presidential and statesmanlike. And he did it while not appearing to grasp after it. . . as any good pol would do.

And don't think for a second that I am paying BO any great compliment. ANY decent political advisor would have seen this all clearly, long before it became reality. And they all might even have had a knee-slapping hoot, while they were planning it all (I would like to have been there!) - and an even better one after it worked out!

I WILL give him credit for a good performance.

My hat is off to you, Barack. Your political instincts are at least at the competency level. And kudos to your advisors, too.

Now get out there and walk on water while you fix the economy.

(Another Biblical reference? Well, at least cats and dogs are not living together... right, Bill?)

Posted by: SteveGinIL on February 20, 2009 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK

To Doctor Biobrain:

You got it right, Dude.

Posted by: SteveGinIL on February 20, 2009 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

For the historically inclined. . .
Doctor Biobrain:

We're never going to get Republicans to stop attacking us or praise our policies; just as we'll never do that for them. There are no political options to make that happen. The best we can do is deny legitimacy to their arguments. . . they'll never surrender or admit that [the opposition's actions or] policies worked. That's not an attainable goal.

It reminds me of the founding and early years of The Royalist Society, when they made a clear break with the Church (so tough a break that we are still dealing with it in the form of fundamentalism, 350 years later). The scientists HAD TO recognize that they weren't going to change the minds of the Church or its adherents; the scientists just had to push forward with rational thought and let the chips fall where they may - and basically ignore any b.s. coming from the other side, whose paradigm about reality was not rooted in the reality they could see and touch and measure.

Reality-based and its opposite are intrinsically speaking two different languages.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Something like the famous book, Democrats are from Earth and Republicans are from Uranus. . . (no pun really intended)

Posted by: SteveGinIL on February 20, 2009 at 6:22 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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