As the new Congress begins its work in earnest, with the Republicans ascendant in the House, a familiar refrain will surely be heard throughout the land.
“Will you compromise with the Democrats?”
“Are you going to put partisanship aside to get something accomplished?”
“What will both sides be able to agree on?”
These questions, of course, will come from the media. They always do when the Republicans have wrestled the Democrats into a political armlock of some sort. That happened on Election Day when the Republican Party captured 63 House seats in a stunning rejection of the policies of the Democratic Party.
But here’s the thing: We don’t remember hearing these questions being asked of Democrats when they took control of both Houses of Congress and the presidency in 2008. Perhaps the questions were absent because the president himself promised — repeatedly — during his campaign to bring an end to partisanship and political rancor in Washington. In fact, the media generally believed that President Obama actually would institute the country’s first “post-partisan presidency,” although that term was never well-defined.
I was thinking about all of this as the president encountered his first major opportunity, just before Christmas, to demonstrate what those campaign promises were all about. This, of course, was the great income tax compromise. The president wanted a tax increase for those earning more than $250,000 annually. The Republicans didn’t want to raise taxes on anyone in a failing economy. The compromise? Taxes wouldn’t rise for anyone, but only for two years. Then they would rise for wealthier individuals.
The president wasn’t able to get what he wanted, and it was a difficult pill for him to swallow, but the occasion produced his first opportunity to demonstrate post-partisanship. He talked about the compromise in a press conference on Dec. 13. Here is how he reached across the aisle in a display of bipartisanship:
First, he told the reporters that “the people agree with me… but I can’t budge the Republicans.” Then he groused that tax cuts for the wealthy are the Republican Party’s “Holy Grail. This seems to be their central economic doctrine.” Then he accused the Republicans of holding tax cuts for the middle class hostage until they could get their tax cuts for the rich. And then, in a sweeping gesture of bipartisanship, he said it was “tempting to not negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostages get harmed. In this case the hostages were the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed.” He repeated that the American people are on his side, but they would be “directly damaged and immediately damaged” if he did not strike an agreement with the Republicans.
So. There you have it. That’s the meaning of “post-partisanship.” The people and the president are on one side, but the president’s opponents have a gun at their collective head, and the scoundrels will use that gun unless the president is able to convince them to put it down. This he has been able to do via the compromise. One might be excused for failing to see how this kind of rhetoric is apt to bring an end to political rancor in Washington.
We’re likely to see more of it in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Congress will be in a stalemate, and the president will often be in campaign mode rather than statesman mode, so his attacks on opponents will grow. At least the next time around fewer people will be fooled by promises of “post-partisanship.”
Tom Minnery is the senior vice president of government and public policy at CitizenLink and the editor of Citizen. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.