'Post-partisanship' isn't dead yet but it's close
If you think bipartisanship is a fusty, goody-goody concept out of phase with today's urgent realities, consider the impending fallout from the American International Group bonus flap.
The populist frenzy against AIG, channeled by Republicans against President Barack Obama, could well sink chances of securing more money -- perhaps $750 billion or $1 trillion -- to buy up toxic bank assets and save the financial system.
The House's No. 3 GOP leader, conservative Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), declared on Tuesday: "No more bailouts. The American people have had it. They want this Congress to get back to ... the belief that the freedom to succeed includes the freedom to fail."
And he isn't alone. The Senate's No. 3 GOP leader, moderate Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), told me in an interview that, after being one of a handful of Republicans voting twice to release bank bailout funds, he likely won't do it a third time.
"I think if President Obama had said, 'I'm going to fix the banks and get credit flowing and I'm going to concentrate on that as a first priority,' he'd have gotten whatever Republican support he needed," Alexander said.
"I think it would be very difficult now," he said, after Obama put priority instead on stimulus and omnibus spending bills requiring $1 trillion in new borrowing.
The fact is that while Republicans have next to no power in the House and are close to lacking filibuster power in the Senate, they can seize on popular moods and thwart Obama's agenda -- another bank rescue being the prime example.
It's time for Obama to remember all those "post-partisan" campaign promises of his and find ways to listen to Republicans and accommodate some of their ideas.
Obama ought to take up an idea that I heard former Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., put forward the other day: Quietly hold some bipartisan skull sessions on selected topics to hash out ideas and create a problem-solving atmosphere.
In the case of the bank crisis -- and other areas of economic policy, too -- Obama and his top advisers ought to mix it up regularly with conservative Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who, they would discover, has some constructive ideas that Obama might adopt.
Such as: Instead of injecting vast new cash into the banks, institute a system of government insurance guarantees to protect asset-holders against losses. Also, triage the banks and commence a Resolution Trust Corp.-style liquidation of those that can't be saved.
Ryan also has long advocated partly suspending the mark-to-market rule for valuing bank assets. The current accounting rule pegs securities at zero if no one will buy them, even though, since most people pay their mortgages on time, the assets actually have value.
Super-investor Warren Buffet advocates the same change. And Ryan also has been urging that the Securities and Exchange Commission enforce the "uptick rule" so that hedge funds can't sell short and drive stock values into the cellar unless a stock price has first had an "uptick."
Clearly, Obama and Ryan aren't going to agree on such policies as a 25 percent top tax rate or zero capital gains taxes, but the intellectual exchange between two smart people would be enlightening for both.
An Obama Cabinet member told me that Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel felt "slapped in the face" when, after personal visits, only three Congressional Republicans voted for his stimulus package.
Since then, the mantra from the White House has been: Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the GOP, Republicans are "the party of no" and anyone who opposes Obama is the tool of special interests. The message is: We tried post-partisanship, but Republicans won't play.
Asked about the "party of no" charge, Alexander told me: "Partly true. If President Obama suggests taking away the secret ballot in union elections or borrowing $1 trillion for things that don't stimulate, our answer is no. ... Part of our job is to hold the administration accountable.
"But another part of our job is to offer better ideas, and we're working hard to do that," he said, citing energy policy where "instead of higher taxes and more subsidies for windmills, our plan would be 100 new nuclear plants, more natural gas, clean coal and increase research on alternatives."
As Alexander noted, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in January made a broad offer to work with Obama on Social Security and other entitlement reform.
And Alexander said Senate Republicans are ready to help with education, health care and Afghanistan policy, as well.
The problem is that Bush-style mutual suspicion is taking hold. Alexander said that the White House is good about visits and cordiality, but that "when it comes to engaging Republican senators on the merits of our ideas, not much has happened."
And he said Obama will really rip it if he uses budget reconciliation rules to ram health care reform and energy taxes through the Senate on a 51-vote basis. Moreover, he said, Obama probably will fail.
Ryan told me that, where the House is concerned, "there's no collaboration or exchanges of ideas. They have isolated and ostracized Republicans and they've decided to go solo.
"If so, they'll have to go solo on the next round of TARP, which is now called 'tar-pit' around here," Ryan said.
On Tuesday, Obama said that "with the magnitude of the challenges we face right now, what we need in Washington are not more political tactics -- we need more good ideas.
"We don't need more point-scoring -- we need more problem-solving. So if there are members of Congress who object to specific policies or proposals in my budget, then I ask them to be ready and willing to propose constructive alternative solutions."
He added: "'Just say no' is the right advice to give to your teenagers about drugs. It is not an acceptable response to whatever economic policy is proposed by the other party."
Indeed. But Obama and his party have to play their part, too -- by listening to alternative ideas and taking them seriously.
-- Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.