President Obama was feeling loose at a Democratic campaign fundraiser Thursday as he talked about the Republican Party. "We got our mops and our brooms out, we're cleaning stuff out, and they're sitting there saying, 'Hold the broom better.' 'That's not how you mop.' " He then went from the utility closet to the garage. "After [Republicans] drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back. No! You can't drive! We don't want to have to go back into the ditch! We just got the car out! We just got the car out!"
After months of unified Republican opposition, Obama has mostly given up on the bipartisan talk that characterized his campaign and first 15 months of his administration (although it's still a nice sentiment for college commencement addresses). Also, with a tough election ahead, both parties are defining their opponents in ever sharper terms. And yet, just when bipartisanship is falling out of favor in the White House, a scraggly version of it is popping up through the cracks in the concrete. Financial regulatory reform will likely pass in the Senate with Republican votes. And Elena Kagan, the president's Supreme Court nominee, will also probably get a number of Republican votes.
There was a time when administration officials made great effort to show that they were working on a bipartisan basis. His commitment to bipartisanship was part of what voters liked about Obama. Even when Republicans said they would not vote for legislation, White House officials worked hard to show that Republican ideas had been incorporated into it. In the original stimulus package, for example, the administration agreed to a $70 billion adjustment to the Alternative Minimum Tax that did little to stimulate the economy but which was favored by Republicans.
Now it appears there will be actual bipartisanship. On financial regulatory reform, several Republicans have been working with Democrats to shape the bill. Republicans will almost certainly vote for the bill, and it will pass. Meanwhile, Kagan has only been through her preliminary meetings with senators, but some Republicans (Susan Collins and Scott Brown, to name two) already sound favorably disposed to her.
This does not suggest a new era in Washington or a thaw, but the timing of these new blips of bipartisanship is a bit inconvenient politically for Democrats. Limiting the expected losses in the 2010 elections requires painting Republicans as blindly obstructionist. Depicting them as merely meddlesome with bad ideas won't do. It doesn't inspire people enough to get out to vote. Neither does saying they're merely dumb at first but ultimately persuadable. The argument has to be clear and bright. Republicans need to be defined as a party that thinks, as the president put it, "If the Democrats lose, we win."
He has to make that contrast stark because polls show that the American people don't really see much of a difference between the two parties in Congress. In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, when people were asked which party cares more about "average Americans," only 35 percent said Democrats in Congress. That's better than the 20 percent who cited Republicans, but it shows that on a key issue of the day, neither party is doing very well. Majorities also think both parties care more about large corporations.
One way to change that dynamic is to enlist someone who people do think is looking out for them. Just more than half—51 percent—of those asked think Obama is looking out for average Americans. The same poll showed that nearly 70 percent of Americans like Obama personally. So he still may have the best standing to make the case against Republicans. From Day One, the president told his Democratic audience in New York, Republicans have blocked him for purely political reasons. This would seem to contradict his commencement address in Michigan earlier this month, when he told the graduates: "You can question somebody's views and their judgment without questioning their motives. … The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation."
The president would probably prefer to stay above the fray. But his Democratic colleagues are not in a position to make much of a case against their opponents and aren't likely to improve their reputation with the public. They are not, for example, going to take rash measures to become more transparent in lawmaking or give up earmarks entirely, gestures that might shock the public into giving the Democrats who control Congress a second look. (Though they're trying.)
The irony, for the president who spent so much of his early administration trying not to look partisan, is that financial reform may be a bipartisan success precisely because he was willing to play rough. Unlike health care reform, where Obama stayed out of the congressional fight, with financial reform he has been more active. He took on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell directly, saying his efforts to label the legislation a "bailout bill" were "cynical and deceptive" and, questioning his motives, argued that Wall Street bankers were guiding his hand. And twice, Obama criticized specific amendments as favors to Wall Street. Democrats think this presidential pressure (and polls that show 71 percent of the people think Republicans care more about large corporations) helped bring Republicans to the negotiating table.
Republicans, of course, see it differently. They argue that they helped bring the Democrats to a more reasonable piece of legislation by unifying against an earlier, unreasonable version. Yet Republicans also face a risk from bipartisanship: If they can actually work with Democrats, can they really be as crazy as Republicans say?
What all this means is that even after the bipartisan bill passes, there will still be partisan fighting over why it did. Maybe the president can console himself that this (politically inconvenient) era of bipartisanship is likely to be fleeting.