The White House's Shame Strategy

If there are any immutable laws of the political universe right now, there seem to be two:

1. Bipartisanship, on any issue of consequence, does not exist as a force in the universe. Proximately, it's because Republicans know that the benefit they're deriving in the short term far exceeds the criticism they're getting from the political elite. One reason is that the party's base, egged on by the Tea Party movement, encourages and rewards their behavior. There are many other reasons -- congressional Democrats aren't entirely blameless -- but Ron Brownstein, James Fallows and President Obama have all offered persuasive theories. Add to that mass migration of Americans to the sunbelt, immigration, the ability of outside interests to enforce party conformity, a campaign finance system that rewards self-interest, and archaic Senate rules -- well, bipartisanship is dead. The entire Republican Senate conference voting against a deficit reduction commission that many of them had previously endorsed? Surprised, David Broder? How can you blame that on liberals? You can't.

2. The second law: to pass anything of consequence, one needs 60 votes in the Senate. Even with 60 Democrats, the party did not have 60 votes -- their party majority always exceeding the cohesiveness of their political majority. (Thank the apportionment of senators for that one.) (As Sen. Tom Carper joked this morning, "I could submit a resolution congratulating members on their birthdays. I'm not sure I could get 60 votes for it.")

So -- Democrats are left in an intractable situation. This is something that the White House has come to realize fairly recently.

There are also few arrows in the presidential quiver. One of them -- and the one that the president is going to use -- is shame. Shame Republicans. Increase the costs of not doing business. Somehow -- and I don't know how -- before November of 2010, this can be accomplished, make it more expensive for Republicans to continuously obstruct. Shame also puts pressure on Democrats who feel the pull of their less liberal constituencies. Shame is a cousin of ridicule -- and that's the stratagem employed by the president during last week's meeting with the Republican Party. Really, the ONLY way for Democrats to get anything done is to change that balance. The White House will continue to reach out -- not because they actually believe in the magical bipartisan fairy, but because they're ready to remonstrate Republicans when the GOP slams the door in their faces. Another strategem would be to force the GOP -- old white guys with sketchy bladders -- to filibuster. Stand up there and filibuster. Expose the ugliness of what the process is. (Andy Stern of SEIU has been advising senior congressional leaders to employ this.) Figure out a way to channel the public's anger -- diffuse as it is -- onto Republicans by exposing their votes against popular majoritarian items.

What's driving a lot of frustration on the left now is that beyond these actions, there is very little the Democratic Party can do. The problem is exogenous. Solving it -- breaking down GOP discipline -- requires a full-scale intervention into the intraparty politics of the GOP. You see gallant efforts by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to try to do this. But Democrats are rightly pessimistic.

The silver living for Democrats is that Republican politicians aren't stupid. And there are some who are instinctively opposed to the type of party discipline that they have no choice but to yield to. It is possible that obstructionism will run its course, and that Republicans, simply because the tactic becomes old and no longer seems to benefit them, will seek face-saving ways to compromise with Democrats.