Why Obama Should Reach Out to Conservatives—and Conservatives Should Reach Out to Obama
Barack Obama’s mantra is “change.” If he really means it, the most important thing he can do is make a genuine commitment to govern from the center and avoid the polarizing, divide-and-conquer tactics that have characterized the administration of George W. Bush. This means he must reach out to those on the other side—including political conservatives—even if it costs him some support in the Democratic Party’s liberal base.
Simultaneously, conservatives need to reach out to Obama. While there is no guarantee that he is going to win, the odds favor him decisively at this time. If conservatives reach out to Obama now there is a good chance that he will be receptive and willing to accommodate them to some extent. If they wait until Obama’s victory is certain, he will be much less willing to make any sort of deal.
Of course all potential presidents talk during the campaign about the need to change the tone of political discourse in Washington, cultivate bipartisanship, and negotiate with the other side in good faith. George W. Bush said such things often during the 2000 campaign, promising to be a compassionate conservative. There is no question that many moderate and independent voters supported him because they believed such promises.
But Bush’s era of bipartisanship pretty much began and ended with the No Child Left Behind Act, which increased educational funding in return for greater accountability by schools. Liberals like Ted Kennedy took a chance on Bush and supported him in hopes of encouraging further bipartisan efforts. Unfortunately, none were forthcoming from the White House.
Very early in his administration, Bush seems to have concluded that the narrowness of Republican margins in the House and Senate necessitated a change in strategy. Rather than negotiate with Democrats to pass more moderate versions of his agenda, Bush instead negotiated only with the most extreme members of the Republican caucus in a bid to gain total party unity.
In a narrow sense, Bush’s strategy was successful—he got the tax cuts and trade deals he wanted with virtually no Democratic votes. But he paid a price in terms of hardening opposition to his policies that have produced virtual gridlock in Bush’s second term, with Democrats now refusing to confirm even the most low-level presidential appointments.
Obama is right to want to change Bush’s way of doing things, but it will do no good if the only change is from Republican ultra-partisanship to Democratic ultra-partisanship. He may be successful in the short term by ramming through his program with brute political force and no Republican support, but Obama will pay a price down the road, just as Bush has. If Obama wishes to be a successful president and a true agent of change, he needs to commit himself to talking to his political enemies, listening to them and having a few conservatives in his circle of advisers. A little good will now could pay enormous dividends later on.
If Obama does reach out to conservatives, their instinctive reaction will probably be to see it as a trap and refuse to play. They think his policies are doomed to fail and the more liberal they are the more certain they will fail. When this happens, conservatives think they can start to pick up the pieces in 2010 and regain the White House in 2012. If, on the other hand, they cooperate with Obama, they will either reduce the chances of him failing or share in the blame if he does fail. There is basically no upside from their point of view.
This is exactly the sort of mentality that kept Republicans in the minority in Congress almost continuously for 62 years from 1932 to 1994—they were always waiting for the Democrats’ failures to rescue them from the political wilderness. Although the American people would often entrust the White House to Republicans, it was mainly because they don’t trust either party to run the entire government. The Democrats remained the nation’s governing party.
I think it makes more sense to show responsibility and work to implement one’s agenda even if it means reaching across the aisle, rather than hunker down, refuse to cooperate and hope for the other side to screw up. Any success that sort of strategy achieves will be fleeting at best.
Conservatives also need to be aware of the pressure on Obama from liberals to move to the left. This pressure will increase the more it looks like he is going to win. Why should he move to the center if he doesn’t have to? But if at least a few conservatives get on board with Obama now, when running a centrist campaign is his best option, he will be more willing and able to resist pressure to move left later on.
The window of opportunity for Obama and conservatives to reach an accommodation is small. But the potential payoff is large. The nation needs a rest from the hyper-partisanship of the last eight years. Both sides will need to give something if that is to happen.
Bruce Bartlett worked on the White House staff during the Reagan Administration.