Ryan Lizza's article in the new New Yorker contains some good inside information explaining how candidate Obama's promises to usher in a new style of politics, ran into the realities of a Congress that is more partisan than ever before. Commentators like Paul Krugman have jumped on the bandwagon, chiding President Obama for being so naive in thinking he could "transcend partisanship." Now conventional wisdom seems to suggest that President Obama has abandoned any efforts at bi-partisanship, and is going to come out swinging at Congress and the Republican opposition during this election year. The headline in the LA Times, for example, called tonight's State of the Union speech a "confrontational" address.
Not so fast. What I heard in the President's State of the Union message tonight--which started and ended with descriptions off how members of the military are able to transcend their differences, focus on the mission, and work as a team--was a renewed call for members of Congress to put aside partisan differences and work toward achieving consensus of a range of issues that need to be addressed. True, there was a stick behind these idealistic appeals to unity--the promise that if Congress does not act on some of these issues, the Executive Branch will do what it can to take action; as well as the implicit threat that the electorate will blame the Republicans if they continue their obstructionist ways. But I did not hear the president abandon his appeals to working across the aisle and trying to find consensus. I heard him continue to make the case for changing our broken political system.
Because, really, what is the alternative? The "realists" like Lizza and Krugman seem to argue that getting anything done in Washington always has been and always will be a numbers game. If the president's team has the votes, they can get their program through Congress. If they don't, they can't. They are foolish to think they can ever achieve anything by trying to persuade the opposition to work with them. If we accept that view, however, that means we must view Congress as either a brick wall or a steamroller. We must accept gridlock whenever we have divided government, which we seem to have most of the time. And when one party or the other has the votes, we must let them roll over the opposition and implement a program that is going to be unpalatable to a substantial minority.
I once heard Taylor Branch, who wrote a three volume history of the
years of Martin Luther King, Jr., talk about how many veterans of the
civil rights movement view the early, non-violent years of the struggle
as a naive, child-like phase that the movement had to pass through
before reaching its more mature, confrontational style in the late
1960's. The lesson we have failed to learn from King, said Branch, was
that the methods of non-violent conflict resolution King espoused may be
his more lasting, and more universally-applicable legacy, not merely
the achievement of civil rights for black people. (I don't mean to
diminish that achievement at all, of course.) Just in terms of sheer
effectiveness, compare what was accomplished by the years of non-violent
protests--the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act--to
the results of those later, more violent tactics, which led to a massive
backlash, and decades of the politics of resentment and divisiveness?
I recognize that in politics, as in every other type of conflict, there
are times when you must fight to win. Most of the time, however, that
approach is not going to provide a better outcome. Those who counsel
giving up on negotiations because that way is too "soft" or "naive" or
requires too much compromise, are really saying that it is better to get
nothing done at all, or to lose to the other side half the time, than
to satisfy at least some of your objectives. They are saying it is
better to maintain the purity of your ideological principles, even if
you accomplish less by doing that.
President Obama did not suggest that we should accept that reality. I heard him offer a vision of putting aside partisan differences to work together on a common mission, just as the military does. But even as a practical matter, the president is smart to stick with this approach. He knows he still has a hostile Congress to work with this year. And even after the election, he is probably not going to regain the large Democratic majorities he enjoyed during the first two years. That means he must appeal to Congress's better nature, or threaten Congress, or shame Congress, or whatever he can do in an effort to persuade Congress to work with him this year and in his second term, if he is to get anything done.
When I heard the president talk near the end of his speech, about lowering the temperature in Washington, and trying to achieve consensus, that did not sound to me as if he were giving up on the idea of post-partisanship. Far from it. I see continuity from the candidate Obama's original message beginning back in 2004 that we must move beyond the traditional antagonistic red state/blue state, Republican vs. Democratic type of politics to a more constructive approach. We may never achieve that dream, but we should not give up on it either.