The Partisan Fight Over Bipartisanship

I did a double take when I read the story this morning on the latest New York Times/CBS poll.

I did a double take when I read the story this morning on the latest New York Times/CBS poll (opens in new tab). The results showed a majority of Americans want President Obama to keep reaching out to Republicans while an equal majority wants him to pursue his campaign promises rather than compromise with Republicans. With that kind of disconnect, no wonder bipartisanship remains so elusive.

Obviously, you can't have it both ways. Bipartisanship requires compromise. Obama understands that, but no one else seems to. What the poll really suggests is that the public wants him to keep trying, but that he needs to do more to explain what it is that he aims to accomplish. He also needs to persuade others to go along.

For most of Washington, the best means of persuasion may be to keep winning, and make no mistake about it - so far, Obama is winning the partisan war over bipartisanship. That doesn't mean he's changed the fundamentals any -- he clearly hasn't -- but he's winning the political fight and that may help him achieve his long term goal of changing the way Washington does business.

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Consider this: The New York Times/CBS poll also found that three-quarters of Americans believe that Obama is making good on his promise to reach out to the other side, but only 30% think Republicans are doing the same. A Washington Post/ABC poll (opens in new tab) got a similar result, as did a Gallup Poll (opens in new tab).

The results suggest Obama ought to keep trying, regardless of how many votes he wins in the short term and regardless of the advice he gets. Many Democrats are increasingly critical of Obama for compromising, and some insist he allowed the stimulus plan to be gutted to the point that it won't work. Republicans, meanwhile, say Obama is all talk and that he's not really listening to their ideas.

The polls suggest Obama knows what he's doing. His approval rating is around 63% in all three polls. That's down about 5 percentage points since the inauguration, but the decline has all been among Republican voters. Democrats and independents have maintained or increased their support. And there's the rub.

As the National Journal's Charlie Cook points out (opens in new tab) today, Obama was sure to lose the support of Republicans eventually, but he doesn't really need Republicans because they make up only 28% of the electorate. As long as Obama maintains support from independents, he'll have the political clout he needs to prevail on many big issues. Republicans may be strengthening their base, but they're not doing much to go beyond it.

As a case in point, look at the way the March 31 special House election campaign is shaping up (opens in new tab) in New York. An unknown Democrat, Scott Murphy, is running against Jim Tedesco, the Republican state assembly leader, for the seat vacated by newly appointed-Sen.Kirsten Gillibrand, D. Tedesco is better known and has national GOP support, while Murphy is a relative neophyte. This should be an easy win for Tedesco in an upstate conservative district, but it's not. And the stimulus is one reason why.

Tedesco is caught in a box. He refuses to say how he would have voted if he were in the House when the stimulus came to the floor. That's an unsustainable position, but Tedesco is trapped between two unpleasant choices. He either has to betray the House GOP, which stood unanimously against the stimulus, or betray his district's voters, who are eager to get the federal help, including unemployment benefits and funding for local public works.

This is the dilemma Republicans have created for themselves. They may have a winning formula for GOP districts, but it's not enough to expand their reach. If Obama can exploit that -- by being partisan -- he may be able to convince Republicans that there's something to be gained by joining in bipartisanship.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter