President Obama has been roundly criticized for making such demonstrative efforts to woo Republican support and having his efforts rewarded with only three votes and a weaker stimulus plan. Although it would be hard to argue that his post-partisan strategy paid short term dividends, I believe that it was the right approach over the long run.
In evaluating the strategy, we have to compare it to some other approach. It seems that the only other option to compromising would have been to “play chicken” with the Republicans. He could have presented exactly the plan he wanted and dared them to filibuster it. The Republicans almost certainly would have done so and defended themselves with the argument that a left-wing president was trying to ram his agenda through Congress. So the net result may well have been a delayed stimulus package and possibly new doubts among centrist voters about the president’s ideological proclivities. Moreover, the president may well have had to compromise anyway to secure cloture.
So instead, I think the president took a very politically shrewd approach. He courted and wooed Republicans and conservative opinion makers. He pledged to work with them. He transformed much of the stimulus into the only policy instrument that Republicans believe in: tax cuts. Yet, 98% of the Republican in Congress voted against. So who looks like extremists now? It will be much harder for Republicans to run against Obama as a leftwing extremist and easier for him to run against them as unreconstructed Hooverites. Of course, the Republicans will still cry out that socialism is on the march, but I think it will work even less well than it did in November.
So is there any evidence that I’m right and Obama’s critics are wrong? I think the Clinton healthcare debacle shows exactly how the counterfactual would have played out. The Clintons decided to pursue what they viewed was the right policy and hoped to use the Democrat’s numerical majority to enact it without compromise. This approach made it easier for Republicans to attack the plan as complex, bureaucratic, socialized medicine. The failure of Clintoncare and the perception that Clinton’s policy views were outside the mainstream contributed to the Republican sweeps in the 1994 election.
Ironically, the Republicans are still playing by the old script. Only time will tell whether Obama’s bipartisan ad lib will change the storyline.
P.S. Tim Groseclose and I formalize a similar argument here (JSTOR access required).