APS News

Inside the Beltway

It Takes Two to Tango

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

When Barack Obama announced in December that Rahm Emanuel would be his White House Chief of Staff, I winced. Here was a President-Elect who had campaigned on defusing the partisan-charged Washington atmosphere selecting one of the most notorious Democratic flame-throwers as his second. What was he thinking?

I’ve known Rahm for the better part of two decades, and I’ve admired him as a brilliant tactician, despite his often over-the-top partisanship. Now, as I’ve watched our new President stretch his quest for bipartisanship to the breaking point, I only wish he would let a little of Emanuel’s bad temper escape from the West Wing, at least once in a while.

Washington, even in good times, suffers insufferably from a climate of backstabbing disguised as political rectitude. But when one party routs the other, as happened in 2008, the losing side looks for every opportunity to pummel the winning team right from the outset, without ever considering white-glove etiquette.  

So it was no wonder that Republicans took immediate advantage of the opening President Obama gave them in the debate over the $789 billion economic stimulus bill. They didn’t have the votes to block its passage, but with the new occupant of the White House singularly focused on his let-us-reason-together mantra, they seized control of the economic message, and by the time the legislation reached the President’s desk, the American public had begun to question’s the bill’s efficacy. Score one for the GOP.

What had begun as a rational debate over the validity of Keynesian economic theory in early November ended as a well-crafted Republican taunt that the stimulus bill was far from economically stimulating. By the time the House and Senate finished tallying the votes in mid-February, only three Republicans broke party ranks and joined the Democratic majority in supporting the legislation.

In the end, the President won the battle over a stimulus bill he wanted, but he didn’t achieve his goal of a bipartisan endorsement. The goal was probably unrealistic from the start, but the Administration practically put it out of reach when it shifted the bill’s original rationale of job creation and economic stimulus to its final justification of economic recovery and reinvestment.

As Frank Luntz points out in his book, Words that Work, it’s not what you say that matters, it’s what people hear you say. “Jobs” and “stimulus” are easy for people to connect with at an emotional and visceral level. “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act”–the stimulus bill’s official name–is not only a mouthful, it is an abstract concept that contains little emotional appeal for the average citizen. And Drew Westen, the author of The Political Brain, will tell you that unless you arouse the emotions of your listeners, you have no chance of engaging them, no matter how cogent the intellectual content of your message.

Disregarding the importance of words and their emotive content was only one of three errors President Obama committed. By broadening the focus of the bill, he also opened the door for House Democrats to add funding for social programs that Republicans had blocked for more than a dozen years. And that gave the GOP ample ammunition to attack the “stimulus package” hyperbolically as a trillion dollar pork project. And judging by the polling results, the public accepted the charge as fact.

Through its persistent use of the word “stimulus” to describe the recovery legislation, the media reinforced the public’s perception that Republicans, not Democrats, were balanced guardians of the purse. Given such a landscape Republicans had no political upside for supporting the legislation. Yet the new President continued to woo them, and his quixotic preoccupation with changing the culture of Washington, led to a lost opportunity–portraying the GOP as a band of obstructionists.

President Obama’s errors permitted Senate Republicans to utilize the threat of a filibuster to change the thrust of the legislation. And eventually, three moderate northeastern senators, Susan Collins (R-ME), Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), found themselves in the roles of ultimate arbiters of the bill’s content.

The swing-gang whacked away at the House priorities, and by the time they were done, Collins, Snowe and Specter, joined by a cadre of conservative Democrats, had removed more than $6.5 billion for science, much of it related to infrastructure projects that would create several hundred thousand blue collar jobs. But the last chapter of the stimulus saga was still to be written. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) rejected as unacceptable the Senate’s insistence that its verdict be final, and in a powwow of ten, the science funding was restored.

Science escaped narrowly, but bipartisanship didn’t. President Obama may want to change the partisan culture of Washington, but it takes two to tango.

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Editor: Alan Chodos