Just about everyone agrees that one of the sad casualties of President Obama’s first 100 days is the bipartisanship he championed so appealingly on the campaign trail. But everyone is wrong—at least when it comes to the ideas Obama is advancing.
Yes, it’s true that Republicans haven’t been supporting his initiatives, but that’s hardly Obama’s fault. Any fair-minded assessment of the president’s policy priorities reveals them to be to be an innovative blend of liberal and conservative thinking. As a result, Obama’s early tenure has posed nothing so much as an instructive political riddle, which runs as follows. When can you have a bipartisan agenda without Republican votes? Answer: when Republicans find that endorsing their own ideas gets in the way of pursuing their thirst for power.
When can you have a bipartisan agenda without Republican votes? Answer: when Republicans find that endorsing their own ideas gets in the way of pursuing their thirst for power.
Don’t believe me? Look at what Obama is actually trying to do in his three big reform arenas: health care, energy, and education.
Health care. The centerpiece of Obama’s approach to overhauling health care, now being fleshed out by Congress, is to create a new insurance exchange or marketplace so that people who don’t receive employer-sponsored plans have access to group coverage outside the job setting. In the exchange, folks would choose among competing health plans, with lower earners enjoying subsidies that taper off as income rises.
This model was championed and enacted by Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts several years ago, with Ted Kennedy helping to persuade the state’s Democrats to join in. And it builds on an approach to universal coverage that Stuart Butler of the conservative Heritage Foundation has been touting since the early 1990s.
Why has Obama ended up here? Because in the wake of the Clintoncare fiasco, Democrats, realizing they had blown it, spent the next decade rethinking their government-heavy approach to reform. While there are details to iron out that would give any final bill a more Democratic or Republican hue, to view Obama’s plan as somehow “lefty” is to ignore its conservative pedigree as well as a dozen years of dedicated efforts by reformers in both parties to find common ground.
(To be fair to Republicans, the potential inclusion in the exchange of a so-called public plan option in addition to private insurance plans has raised fears that Obama is secretly plotting a slide toward a Canadian-style single-payer scheme. But the likeliest scenario is that the public plan becomes a bargaining chip, negotiated away or defanged in exchange for health insurers agreeing to meet certain goals on costs, access, and quality.)
Energy. Complicated details aside, Obama’s overarching approach to energy is simple: He wants America finally to put a proper, higher price on dirty energy that reflects its true environmental costs, and thus create market incentives that allow clean alternative energies to flourish. Obama’s related plan is to cushion the impact of higher dirty energy prices on middle- and lower-income Americans by rebating to them 80 percent of the revenue collected by his cap and trade plan. It’s basically a tax swap, with the other 20 percent of the revenue used by Uncle Sam to jumpstart investment in new energy sources.
Now I’ll confess I haven’t been a cap and trade man myself; I’m a carbon tax guy, because I worry that government won’t be competent to manage its extensive cap and trade role very well. But my skepticism is equally directed at John McCain, who, with Obama, endorsed cap and trade in his presidential campaign. Meanwhile, the basic and overdue notion of putting a higher price on dirty energy and rebating the revenue to cushion the blow on everyday Americans is an idea that has been endorsed by Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw, who served on George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, and by Arthur Laffer, the original force behind Ronald Reagan’s supply-side revolution. How much more bipartisan can an idea get?
Education. In Republicans' eyes, Obama sinned by not fighting to renew the Washington, D.C., voucher program that provided a lifeline to a few thousand desperate families. But the rest of his school agenda hits every Republican erogenous zone. The president is pushing charter schools, higher standards, differential teacher pay, alternative teacher certification, and even tenure reform in ways far beyond anything any president has attempted before. What’s more, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s savvy management of the administration’s union ties, Obama has a chance to make more Nixon-to-China progress on ideas conservatives have long urged than has ever been possible.
Yes, the financial sector is in for assorted degrees of temporary socialization—but that path was begun by comrades Bush and Paulson. And yes, Obama could have struck a blow for Beltway amity by accepting the sensible GOP idea of a payroll tax “holiday” in his stimulus bill (he may have another chance if it turns out the economy needs more stimulation before too long). But when a Democratic president elected by a wide margin is working overtime to foist on America the Romney health plan, the McCain environmental fix, and the conservative establishment’s dream agenda for the schools, the question of “who lost bipartisanship” in his first 100 days has a pretty clear answer.
Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the author of The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity. He hosts Left, Right & Center, public radio's popular weekly political roundtable.