The Extraordinary Smallness of Washington, Part II

Right and Left respond angrily to a call for bipartisan problem-solving.

Shortly after publishing a column on "the extraordinary smallness of Washington," a few angry partisans on the far Right and Left proved the point. They miniaturized the argument.

The big point of the post was spelled out in the first two paragraphs:

Obama is shrinking before our eyes. Squint and you might see his rivals running Congress: itsy-bitsy John Boehner and minute Mitch McConnell. And here come the judges, torturing a typo.

This is an era of titanic challenges and tiny politics. On issue after issue, the Republican and Democratic parties preen and pose but ultimately duck their responsibilities to solve the transcendent problems of our times.

The point is neither groundbreaking nor controversial. The gridlock in Washington is indisputable. Polls show that a majority of Americans disapprove of both parties, believe the country is on the wrong track, and want political leaders to work together on big, generational challenges.

There are a minority of people, however, who embrace the status quo, who are invested in gridlock and division: the politicians, operatives, and hyper-partisan media who feast on narrow minds and suffocate dissent. I heard from many of them after publishing the column, including several liberal pundits who falsely challenged my understanding of the Affordable Care Act.

From the right, I heard objections to this paragraph (emphasis added):

Is the GOP responsible for the extraordinary smallness of Washington? How about the Democrats? The answer is, yes—both are. While I would personally place a majority of the onus on a hardened GOP base, parsing the blame doesn't solve the problem.

"You're in the tank for [President] Obama, you lib," a reader wrote via email. "By not holding him accountable for pig-headedness," wrote another, "you're an enabler for the president and his fellow socialists."

To those readers, I admit that my opinion cannot be proved. Parsing blame is largely a subjective exercise. For what it's worth, my opinion generally conforms with public opinion: Polls show that while Americans hold both parties in contempt, their view of the GOP is dimmer.

The public seems to understand that while polarization has pushed both parties to ideological extremes, the tea-party wing of the GOP is more rigid than Obama's base. They've heard the calls for impeachment. Their social networks are soiled by racist rants. Most people took Mitch McConnell at his word when he told National Journal before the 2010 midterms, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

(In the same interview, by the way, McConnell said, "I don't want the president to fail; I want him to change." That context is rarely included in reports about the McConnell interview, which I would suggest is an example of the miniaturization of political discourse.)

From the left, I heard familiar outrage over my belief that bipartisan solutions are more lasting and credible, and that Obama is partly responsible for political gridlock. That line of criticism (examples here, here, and here) is nicely summarized by Matthew Yglesias of Vox:

It is true that we did not get a bipartisan agreement. It is true that the GOP resisted. It is true that the law is unpopular. But Obama didn't surrender his mantle of bipartisanship. The GOP took it away from him. They took it away from his as part of a deliberate strategy. They knew, as Fournier says right in this very column, that a big bipartisan health reform would be more popular than a big partisan health reform. So since Republicans didn't want Obama to be popular, they had every incentive to refuse to reach a bipartisan agreement. And thus no agreement was reached.

Yglesias may be right. As with my opinion that the GOP is a bit more obstructionist than Democrats, Yglesias's take on bipartisanship is a well-informed opinion—not a fact beyond dispute. I respectfully disagree with him.

I think Obama surrendered to politics as usual when he realized—after getting elected on the promise of bipartisanship—how hard it would be to deal with Republicans. Yglesias thinks the mantle was taken away.

Yglesias doesn't think the GOP had incentive to deal with Obama, because "Republicans didn't want Obama to be popular." He points to an interview with Josh Green in which McConnell says the key to eroding Obama's popularity is denying him the sheen of bipartisanship.

The interview exposes the grim depths of McConnell's cynicism. But liberal pundits seem to conveniently forget that the "sheen of bipartisanship" also would help the GOP. McConnell in particular understands the benefits of compromise; he's a veteran deal-cutter.

Beyond this McConnell point, I've written repeatedly and specifically about incentives for the GOP to deal on immigration, health care, and taxes. The Left believes I'm naïve. That could be true, but I would point out that U.S history is filled with examples of parties that struck deals with presidents whom they didn't want to be popular.

Convinced that the GOP won't allow compromises, it's a short leap of logic for Yglesias to accuse me of aiding Republicans' obstruction. "It's precisely because of columns like this one that it made narrow political sense for the GOP to abjure compromise."

Another way to look at it: It's precisely because of columns like Yglesias's that it made narrow political sense for the White House to abjure compromise. And yet, I don't want Yglesias to ease up on the GOP. Why does he want me to go easy on the White House?

It just boggles my mind that anybody would think that any side is blameless for gridlock. Journalists are like football refs: We throw penalty flags on both teams. Rarely equally, because the blame is almost never even. But without fear or favor.

Yglesias is factually wrong in one respect. It's where he suggests that I didn't know that Obamacare's roots are in a conservative think tank and the Massachusetts governor's office under Mitt Romney. Two paragraphs of my column seem to have confused him.

On health care, we needed a market-driven plan that decreases the percentage of uninsured Americans without convoluting the U.S. health care system. Just such a plan sprang out of conservative think tanks and was tested by a GOP governor in Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

Instead of a bipartisan agreement to bring that plan to scale, we got more partisan warfare. The GOP resisted, Obama surrendered his mantle of bipartisanship, and Democrats muscled through a one-sided law that has never been popular with a majority of the public.

The first paragraph laid out the broad principles of health care reform backed initially by GOP elites, then Romney and Obama—a timeline familiar to National Journal's sophisticated audience. The second paragraph hammered both parties for failing to produce a bipartisan agreement along those common principles.

I should have connected the dots. I shorthanded the background with a sarcastic, sloppy transition. On the other hand, Yglesias and fellow liberal pundits, most of whom have a history of comparing notes and coordinating attacks with the White House, could have simply asked me to clarify the passage. I'm not hard to find, and anybody involved in health care policy-making the past 20 years knows that I've covered the link between Romneycare and Obamacare. I reported on the Clinton-era health care debate from the White House; interviewed then-Gov. Romney in 2006 about his plan and how he would make it a "launching pad" for a 2008 presidential bid; and oversaw The Associated Press's coverage of the Obamacare debate.

Harold Pollack, a University of Chicago professor and fierce Obamacare advocate, will tell you that I'm wrong on just about everything about the politics of the Affordable Care Act, but that I understand the origins of the law.

I'll stop now. This is getting quite small.