How Obama and Boehner Can Learn Lessons From 'Governor Ultrasound'

National Journal

How acute is the shortage of comity, compromise, and true leadership in Washington? Bad enough that the closest example of political courage is a controversial conservative whom Democrats dubbed "Governor Ultrasound."

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is set to sign a bipartisan transportation package approved last weekend by lawmakers in Richmond, steering up to $1 billion a year to the state's battered transportation infrastructure. It trims the gas tax, adds new taxes on wholesale gasoline and diesel sales, and increases the sales tax.

"If you are a conservative," influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson writes, "remember Bob McDonnell thinks you're an idiot."

Erickson and other unyielding GOP partisans are justifiably angry that McDonnell broke his pledge never to raise taxes ("I have no plans to raise taxes," he said in 2009). A politician's word ought to matter.

But the original sin was McDonnell agreeing to the irresponsible tax pledge in the first place. Like too many ambitious Republicans, McDonnell allowed himself to be bullied by antitax lobbyists into a position that leaves no room for compromise and no flexibility to respond to unpredictable circumstances.

Ultimately, that decision forced him to choose between appeasing his base or leading his state. To his credit, McDonnell chose the latter. President Obama and GOP leaders in Congress ought to take note.

"In my State of the Commonwealth Address, I said we must not end this session of the General Assembly until we had fixed transportation," McDonnell said, reminding Virginia voters about another promise he made--and kept. "The bill accomplishes that."

McDonnell, a popular governor forbidden by state law to seek reelection, hopes to be known for something other than legislation he signed mandating ultrasound procedures for women seeking abortions. Democrats dubbed him "Governor Ultrasound."

Now a Democrat hankering to replace him, Terry McAuliffe, is credited with recruiting votes for McDonnell's transportation bill and even placed what the governor's spokesman called "a brief congratulatory phone call" about it.

Such comity is sure to anger partisan allies of both McDonnell and McAuliffe, a price they're willing to pay to appeal to the growing number of independent voters frustrated by mindless partisanship.

"I also promised that in any comprehensive plan there would have to be, by simple legislative necessity, components that not everyone would like," McDonnell said in a statement issued by his office. "That's the nature of a comprehensive piece of legislation that must pass a diverse legislature."

Hear that, Washington?

Republicans, heeding the 2012 election results, bowed in January to Obama's demand for $600 billion in tax increases. Now they stubbornly cling to a position of "no more." Republicans rejected Obama's plan to avert across-the-board spending cuts March 1 by replacing the so-called sequester with a mix of $110 billion worth of new taxes and more narrowly tailored spending cuts.

If the GOP truly refuses to budge--if its obstinacy is not, as I'd like to believe, merely a play for leverage--then blame and ignominy will fall to House Speaker John Boehner and his troops.

But the president won't get off easy. While Obama has reached further rhetorically toward compromise than Republicans have on sequestration and long-term debt, the president eventually needs to lead a stubborn Congress to actual compromise and accomplishment.

His aides and allies will ask, "Exactly what can he do to get the GOP to deal?" That is a question best put to the president, a skilled and well-meaning leader elected to answer the toughest questions.

It is not leadership to merely blame the GOP and attack the media. That's campaigning, which shouldn't be confused with governing.

Today, "Governor Ultrasound" can speak in the past tense about a bargain. Will Obama be able to do as much?