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February 15, 2009

The Fruits of Bipartisan Outreach: Bush vs. Obama

The Obama administration's attempts to gain bipartisan support for the stimulus bill are drawing lots of comparisons to Bush's attempts to foster bipartisan support for his national security agenda:

It's October 2001, and a new President has declared a crisis that demands immediate action. The old policies of the past have failed, he announces, and it is time for far-reaching action that will expand the government's power to combat the serious threats against the Nation. Time is of the essence, he declares: We must act now.

The opposing party tries to stop the President's plan. They complain that the President and his minions in Congress are acting too fast and going too far. Sure, some kind of change is needed. But the President and his allies are going too far, they complain, passing a "wish list" to capitalize on the public's fear of the crisis continuing.

Even worse, no one seems to know exactly what is in the massive bill. Senators and Representatives in the minority party complain that they never even had time read it! The bill is hundreds of pages long, and it was impossible for anyone to read all that legislation in time for the vote.

The President is dismissive about their complaints, however. The opponents are stuck in the old discredited way of thinking: Change is needed, and quickly. The bill quickly passes, and it becomes known as the USA Patriot Act.

Now fast forward. It's February 2009, and a new President has declared a crisis that demands immediate action. The old policies of the past have failed, he announces, and it is time for far-reaching action that will expand the government's power to combat the serious threats against the Nation. Time is of the essence, he declares: We must act now.

The opposing party tries to stop the President's plan. They complain that the President and his minions in Congress are acting too fast and going too far. Sure, some kind of change is needed. But the President and his allies are going too far, they complain, passing a "wish list" to capitalize on the public's fear of the crisis continuing.

Even worse, no one seems to know exactly what is in the massive bill. Senators and Representatives in the minority party complain that they never even had time to read it! The bill is hundreds of pages long, and it was impossible for anyone to read all that legislation in time for the vote.

So, how are we to evaluate these comparisons? I see definite parallels: for instance, for years American voters were bombarded by accusations that the Bush administration used shameless and unwarranted "fear mongering" to silence opposition to their agenda. If we are to accept the premise that "fear" makes a poor basis for public policy decisions, why have we heard so few alarms about Obama's shameless and unwarranted fear mongering in regard to the economic crisis?

As he tells it, today's economy is the worst since the Great Depression. Without his Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he says, the economy will fall back into that abyss and may never recover.

This fearmongering may be good politics, but it is bad history and bad economics. It is bad history because our current economic woes don't come close to those of the 1930s. At worst, a comparison to the 1981-82 recession might be appropriate. Consider the job losses that Mr. Obama always cites. In the last year, the U.S. economy shed 3.4 million jobs. That's a grim statistic for sure, but represents just 2.2% of the labor force. From November 1981 to October 1982, 2.4 million jobs were lost -- fewer in number than today, but the labor force was smaller. So 1981-82 job losses totaled 2.2% of the labor force, the same as now.

Job losses in the Great Depression were of an entirely different magnitude. In 1930, the economy shed 4.8% of the labor force. In 1931, 6.5%. And then in 1932, another 7.1%. Jobs were being lost at double or triple the rate of 2008-09 or 1981-82.

This was reflected in unemployment rates. The latest survey pegs U.S. unemployment at 7.6%. That's more than three percentage points below the 1982 peak (10.8%) and not even a third of the peak in 1932 (25.2%). You simply can't equate 7.6% unemployment with the Great Depression.

The history of the Patriot Act is similarly unsupportive of comparisons to the stimulus bill. Unlike the stimulus bill, the Patriot Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (357-66 House, 98-1 Senate). Despite the Democrats' subsequent eagerness to distance themselves from a bill they supported, the bill was a product of bipartisan compromise. Many of its harshest critics not only voted for but were, in fact, co-authors of the bill:

...in 2001, Kerry in fact voted for the Patriot Act – parts of which he himself originally wrote. He said at the time that he was “pleased at the compromise we have reached on the anti-terrorism legislation as a whole.” “It reflects,” he said on the Senate floor, “an enormous amount of hard work by the members of the Senate Banking Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. I congratulate them and thank them for that work.”

Contrast this with the "bipartisan" process used to draft and pass the stimulus bill:

Congress has a system of standing committees and subcommittees and a system for passing bills. I teach that system every year to my students and then, after they learn it, tell them that, of course, Congress can throw that whole system out whenever they want to or when they feel something is so important that they need to rush it through. But there is a reason that they have the normal procedures - supposedly to get input and have debate on what they're adopting. This mammoth spending bill has bypassed the normal procedures from the beginning. It was crafted by a few Democratic leaders in the House. Despite Obama's pretty pictures and nice gestures of consulting with Republicans, they actually had no input whatsoever. He managed to consult with them after the bill was mostly written. If he really cared about their opinions, he would have told the House Democrats to make sure to include Republicans before and while they wrote the bill. The result is that no House Republicans voted for the bill. And when it got to the Senate, with its different rules and the necessity of getting 60 votes to obtain cloture, they finally opened up to get the support of the three Compromiser Republicans. That got the bill to conference committee, where once again the Republicans, except for the Compromiser Three [presumably refused to support it].

Peter Feaver notes that there's an enormous difference between genuine bipartisanship and the appearance of bipartisanship. Walking through the history of the Bush administration's failed efforts to build bipartisan support for our Iraq strategy, Feaver makes a convincing case that despite the misleading sound-byte which came to define Bush's policy in the eyes of the public, Bush's actual policy was one of bipartisan outreach and compromise.

As for the Iraq Study Group, I think Philip has a different creation story than I have. Congressman Wolf proposed it in the fall of 2005 not as a vehicle for changing the strategy but a vehicle for explaining the strategy. He argued then that the Bush administration had no credibility post-Duelfer Report, post-Abu Ghraib, post-Cindy Sheehan, post-Katrina, so even though it was following the right strategy, it got no traction with the public on it. Send unimpeachable Americans over to see firsthand what Casey and Zal were doing, and they can report back what the White House cannot. Sure, they will have some changes at the margins, but they will largely validate what is being done.

And so they did. If you look at the core of the Baker-Hamilton Commission's recommendations on Iraq (set aside their recommendations on Israel, Syria, and so on), they were essentially to speed up the next sequel of the NSVI strategy. By this point, of course, the Bush White House had met at least two of Philip's standards for real bipartisanship: the White House admitted the NSVI wasn't working and Rumsfeld was gone. Moreover, there was a serious engagement with critics in the form of serious consideration of a wide spectrum of alternative strategies, to include strategies like this one advocated by Fareed Zakaria and others inside. The president chose otherwise, and I think history so far has vindicated that choice.

But, and this was my deeper point, by this stage he did it without any cross-partisan support and with only very dodgy support within his own party. It was, I think, a near-run thing. What saved the surge was partly the president's doggedness, partly the adroit maneuvering in July-August 2007, and partly the progress General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were able to point to by September 2007.

Which brings me back to the stimulus package. I am not expert enough to choose between the various stimulus proposals circulating. Philip's seemed sensible to me and was especially praise-worthy because he was making concrete suggestions. Obama is in a much stronger position politically than Bush was by 2006-07, so he has more options. The go-it-with-one-party option may seem viable or even attractive to him. My bottom line point is that such a course is risky, and depends on showing demonstrable results within a politically relevant time-frame.

That Bush's efforts failed to garner the cross-party support he sought were less a result of "not listening" or a failure of outreach than of political opportunism. As Harry Reid famously remarked, "We're going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war."

Given that human beings generally behave as they are incented to, it's hardly surprising that history proved him right. So much for bipartisanship for its own sake.

Posted by Cassandra at February 15, 2009 09:45 AM

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Comments

Those who fail to learn from history...

Posted by: camojack at February 16, 2009 01:28 AM

By being too cool to personally attack others, he [Obama] gives people confidence that he can run the country better than those who relied on name-calling and fear-baiting to stay in power.

Heh. History's being rewritten pretty rapidly these days, n'est-ce pas?

Posted by: BillT at February 16, 2009 06:48 AM

Bush and his cronies did use "shameless fear mongering." They manufactured a lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and took advantage of the pain and rage caused by 9/11. Many wanted revenge and Saddam was fat and juicy.

"Fear mongering" has always been the primary Republican weapon and it continues with rhetoric like "death panels" and "bankrupting our grandchildren." I didn't hear anything about grandchildren when Bush and Cheney ("deficits don't matter") were spending money at record levels.

If conservatives have been shut out in the legislating process, they have only themselves to blame. Republican input has been minimal because many of them indicated from the beginning they would oppose anything Obama proposed. Their actions and speech indicate they will stay the course. The GOP, for all its talk of God and family, values power over the well-being of Americans.

I hope all attempts at bipartisanship end. Republicans have been swooning ever since their victory in Massachusetts, proclaiming health care dead. But now a bill will be passed using the reconciliation process. I look forward to the shrieking and wailing from the right.

Posted by: shortmemories at February 22, 2010 12:29 AM

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