Memo to Obama:

Find a few
good opponents

By Bruce Bartlett

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 ne of the biggest problems you have faced over the past two years, Mr. President, has been the extremely poor quality of your opponents in the Republican Party. With precious few exceptions, conservatives have made no effort to engage your administration on an intellectual level. Their criticism has been limited almost entirely to lies, caricatures, and ridiculous charges. Even “respectable” publications such as Forbes magazine have indulged in the same sort of conspiratorial anti-Obama nonsense being peddled by unhinged talk radio hosts and right-wing bloggers.

The widespread repetition of these ideas among Tea Party members and partisans who care nothing about the truth has emboldened Republicans in Congress to adopt scorched-earth policies—putting holds on every administration nominee despite the person’s qualifications, filibustering every bill that comes before the Senate regardless of its merit, and engaging in the pettiest obstructionism imaginable.

In the midst of this mayhem, it may seem you have little choice but to deal exclusively with the likes of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, who are themselves beholden to the base and determined to obstruct at all costs. But that’s not necessarily the case. There are Republican governors, former Republican members of Congress, and even a few conservative intellectuals who still have the capacity for independent thought.

The fact that these responsible conservatives aren’t elected members of Congress matters less than you might think. The president—any president—has a lot of power to anoint leaders, confer status, or simply raise someone’s profile. Much as Oprah can instantly turn a book into a best seller simply by letting it be known that she is reading it, so too can the president get someone an interview on every news program in the English-speaking world just by inviting that person in for some personal face time at the White House. And he can do this just as effectively for his enemies as his friends.

Admittedly, the pool of Republicans who actually care about policy and think their party has some other purpose than defeating you in 2012 is pretty small. There are none in Congress right now—at least none with the courage to act on such convictions. But Republicans who actually have to perform in office, such as governors and mayors, don’t have the luxury of doing nothing except pontificate in front of the Fox News cameras. Some of them would be willing to meet you halfway.

Among conservative intellectuals, meanwhile, the atmosphere of partisanship has been so all-encompassing that it has stifled open thinking and caused the movement to close ranks. Last year, the American Enterprise Institute, once a bastion of sober mainstream Republicans like Gerald Ford and Herb Stein, fired David Frum simply for suggesting that the health legislation would have been better if Republicans had negotiated with Democrats instead of engaging in mindless opposition. (Frum also noted, correctly, that many of the ideas in your plan had their origin among Republicans such as Mitt Romney. That these Republicans were forced to repudiate their own accomplishments only made them look like fools.) Times like these generate intellectual orphans who might be looking for ways to make their voices heard outside the highly policed party lines.

Such conservatives realize that this climate of obstructionism has real consequences. Action on serious problems, such as unemployment, is blocked or delayed, and the quality of legislation is diminished even from the Republican point of view. There’s no doubt that Republicans had ideas that might have improved the Affordable Care Act or the stimulus legislation. But by refusing to participate in the development of these bills or negotiate in good faith, the GOP ensured that such improvements had no chance of getting into the final bills.

My proposal to you, therefore, is this: In your State of the Union address, single out and mention by name a few Republicans who have taken actions or proposed ideas worthy of consideration. Quote some conservative intellectuals who have been critical of the Republican Party’s lack of a governing philosophy or meaningful legislative agenda. This will raise the status of a better class of Republicans and create a group with whom you can possibly develop a partnership.

What I am suggesting is really just a broader version of a tactic you have already occasionally used. In November, for instance, you invited Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker to a high-profile White House meeting to highlight their support for the new START treaty your administration negotiated. That meeting led to several weeks of press coverage in which Senate Republicans who were resisting a vote on ratification were portrayed as sacrificing national security for partisan advantage. That’s the kind of pressure you’ll need if you have any hope of moving your agenda through Congress in the coming two years.

Of course, your embrace of independent-minded Republicans may cause these people to be repudiated by their own side, but the risk to you is minimal and the potential payoff large. The sooner an honest-to-goodness loyal opposition emerges in place of today’s obstructionist Republicans, the better it will be for the nation. And however unlikely it may seem, you of all people can make it happen.

Photo: Getty Images"

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Bruce Bartlett, a senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House, is a columnist for Fiscal Times and Tax Notes. His latest book is The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward.  
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