President Obama was in Baltimore today, speaking to a group of House Republicans at their annual retreat. The topic: bipartisanship.
It's a familiar topic in Washington. But it's preached more than it's practiced. The gulf between the two parties is enormous. We see it not only on the House and Senate floors, we see it on cable TV, we see it at town hall meetings around the country. We're even seeing it today in Baltimore. And as it seems to be increasing, there are clear signs that the American people are sick of it.
It's something that has absorbed the president since Day One. And as he speaks the language of bipartisanship, he is regularly clobbered by both a united GOP and the left wing of his own party. Republicans say he talks a good game but is pushing through a dangerous, liberal agenda. Progressives say he is capitulating to the right and regularly sells out his fellow Democrats. And nothing gets resolved.
The event in Baltimore was fascinating to watch. Reconciliation was on the president's agenda, but both sides stood their ground. Actually, it was pretty much a tough, no-holds-barred give and take. Obama hit the "politics of no" that he says many Republicans practice, picking holes in many of their arguments. Republicans say that the Obama rhetoric doesn't match the record, certainly on lobbyists and earmarks, and insisting they have proposals that "your administration has been ignoring for 12 months." Neither the president nor the Republicans let the other side off easily. But they were talking.
For the record: bipartisanship doesn't mean you give up on your ideals. But it does mean an attempt at civility.
There was a lot of talking as well on Wednesday, during the president's State of the Union message. If you believe that the president called out for bipartisanship in his speech, for an end to politics as usual, this is what you heard:
So we face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope — what they deserve — is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics. For while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds, different stories and different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same. The aspirations they hold are shared. A job that pays the bills. A chance to get ahead. Most of all, the ability to give their children a better life.
What frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We cannot wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about their opponent — a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual Senators. Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game. But it is precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it is sowing further division among our citizens and further distrust in our government.
On the other hand, if you don't buy the argument that Obama was preaching bipartisanship, and was in fact just pointing fingers, you probably heard this:
If the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.
That's where the two sides stand. The distrust of both parties for each other in Congress stems in part from the conclusion that lawmakers hear only what they want to hear.that lawmakers hear only what they want to hear.
The fact is, the president — any president — is always being pulled in two directions, trying to be "above politics," while also trying to adhere to the calls of his own party's more partisan members. President Obama has preached bipartisanship from the outset. His promise to bring a post-partisan administration was a factor in his victory.
But the "era of good feelings" didn't last long. It's one thing to preach bipartisanship; it's another to get people from both parties to hear it. The anger, the rancor, the confusion that we saw in last summer's town hall meetings, the birth of the Tea Party, the Republican victories in New Jersey, Virginia and now Massachusetts all show that people are still not satisfied with the tone coming from our elected officials. The party in control may have changed over the past several years but this dissatisfaction continues.
Republicans, too, claim they are tired of the bickering. An AP account today quotes Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) as saying after the state of the union messge, "We've heard talk of bipartisanship before and didn't get it — not on healthcare and not on jobs. Clearly the American people want us to work together."
So both parties profess this desire to do, for lack of a better phrase, the "Rodney King thing." Remember that one?
People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?...It's just not right. It's not right. It's not, it's not going to change anything. We'll, we'll get our justice....Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we're all stuck here for a while. Let's try to work it out. Let's try to beat it. Let's try to beat it. Let's try to work it out.
One step in that direction is Obama's visit today to Baltimore.
The speech was filled with hopes of working together on behalf of the American people. He conceded that his own party could have done a better job in reaching out as well. Both parties are at fault. Both parties have to stop the bickering.
Good, soaring rhetoric. Every word important. Every word hopeful.
But we've heard this before.
Remember the Civility Retreat? Back in March of 2001, members of Congress, from both parties, gathered in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia to talk about the growing ugliness on Capitol Hill. "Bipartisanship is over," said then-House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. "Not that it ever began." So lawmakers tried. Ray LaHood, now secretary of transportation but then a House Republican from Illinois, was well known for his efforts to get Ds and Rs talking to each other. He came away from the West Virginia retreat encouraged.
Lawmakers hoping for comity and cooperation were further encouraged following the devastating terrorist attacks six months later.
But it didn't last long. 2009 was a year where Congress and the president butted heads, sometimes in a very uncivil way.
But so was 2008. And 2007. And for many years before that.
I'm sitting here watching the president reaching out to Republicans today in Baltimore. He says he is optimistic. He is hopeful. He said the American people don't "want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security." There is a fascinating give-and-take going on with rank-and-file GOP members and the president of the United States.
It feels hopeful. It feels encouraging. And yet ...
As the president was about to speak, hoping to put the animus behind them, this release came from Rep. John Larson (D-CT), who chairs the House Democratic Caucus:
House Republicans are holed up in a luxury hotel this week for their annual retreat. Instead of focusing their meetings on ways to rebuild our economy, put Americans back to work and lower the deficit, they are talking politics. This and other stark contrasts between the House Republicans' and House Democrats' issues conferences point out the real differences between the priorities of the parties.
A day earlier, in his response to the SOTU, RNC chair Michael Steele said he "saw a painfully transparent attempt to spin a tale far different from the reality Americans have witnessed over the last twelve months".
As Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have dragged our country in the wrong direction by pushing their elitist government-knows-best policies, Americans have realized that the "change we can believe in" has become change they didn't want.
We have seen a year of ethically challenged appointees, haphazard attempts at keeping America safe from terror, failed "stimulus" plans, budget busting deficits, back room deals with special interests, and Obama's blatant attempt to continue binge spending with unprecedented debt.
Larson and Steele were doing their jobs. You're not going to remove politics and partisanship from what they were elected to do.
But there was a time when Republicans and Democrats actually talked to each other in hopes of reaching accommodation. They would debate on the floor, and sure, it would sometimes be heated. But afterwards, over a bottle of Scotch, they would sit and try to iron out their differences. There was a greater good than their own re-elections.
It was a million years ago.
But it no longer works. I've lost count of the number of "civility retreats" in the past decade or so. They no longer hold them.
But, even if both sides stay true to their ideals — as they should — the civility needs to improve. On that count, it can't hurt to keep trying.