Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dividing America

President Clinton's response to the Monica Lewinsky affair in early 1998 was to get Dick Morris to conduct a poll, the Washington Post reported.

When Morris reported that Americans would favor his impeachment or resignation if he lied under oath, he says Clinton replied: "Well, we'll just have to win, then."

That started the highly partisan conflict with the Republican Congress that ended in Clinton's impeachment in the House and trial in the US Senate. Arguably, it started the 50-50 Red-state/Blue state division that has dominated US politics down to the present.

The divide certainly hasn't really helped Republicans. But the rage against Bush certainly helped Democrats win in 2006 and 2008.

Now the Obama administration, with its popularity waning, has decided to take a highly partisan tone with its opponents. It has decided to argue that FoxNews is not a real news network, but an arm of the Republican Party.

Well, FoxNews certainly features a number of conservative commentators. And it certainly does feature news that is embarrassing to the administration. But the combative Obama response, David Limbaugh writes, is troubling.

Instead of selling its agenda the old-fashioned way -- by convincing the unconvinced -- it attacks those who dare to articulate and air the opposing point of view.

You can understand why the frustrated Obamites might think they need to up the ante on their opponents. They are political fighters and political fighting is what they do. But viewing this long term, it can do nothing but hurt their cause.

Let's count the ways that this will hurt the administration:

  1. It will elevate FoxNews as the official opposition to Obama.
  2. It will encourage anyone that has a beef with the administration to watch FoxNews.
  3. It will encourage fence-sitters to take a look at FoxNews to find out what is going on.
  4. It will energize the opposition.
  5. It will lead to more and more political thuggery as the Obama administration tries harder and harder to gain traction.

There's a reason why political tradition requires that the political parties bury the hatchet after an election. It is that government becomes almost impossible when everyone is all mobilized to fight on every single issue. That's why politicians typically try to pass legislation that has a large bipartisan majority. If you pass something on strictly a partisan basis, then the other side will mobilize to reverse it at the first opportunity,

Let's look at the Bush tax cuts to see how this works. In the 2001-02 recession the Bush administration wanted to cut tax rates to stimulate economic recovery. But Democrats were opposed. It was impossible to obtain a bipartisan consensus.

So, to get the economy moving and to win the next election, the Bushies pushed their tax cuts through on a partisan budget vote, needing only 51 votes in the Senate instead of a filibuster-proof 60 votes. The tax cuts are set to expire at the end of 2010. Democrats have been salivating ever since to get at the revenue that the tax cuts for the rich took away.

But when President Bush wanted to reform Social Security he understood that budget shenanigans were inappropriate. He needed a bipartisan majority. Democrats were opposed to his plan and it was clear that a bipartisan majority wasn't possible. So Bush accepted defeat, and Social Security didn't get reformed,

The Obama administration clearly doesn't believe in that sort of politics. They seem to be intent upon a huge change to health care without creating a national consensus and a bipartisan majority in Congress. They seem to be determined to get something, anything, as long as they win.

This is a strategic error of monumental proportions. Nothing but tears will come of a close-fought partisan victory on health care.

The problem facing the Obama administration is not that FoxNews is an arm of the Republican Party (Thank goodness it isn't!) . The problem is that Obama campaigned as a moderate and he is governing as a liberal. The problem is that his program is broadly unpopular with the American people, and the more they learn about his agenda, the less they like it.

As I said. The Obama administration is just creating trouble for itself. How much, nobody can tell. That's why we have federal elections every two years.

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