Democrats rely on myth to defend their unwillingness to compromise

Joe Biden and the Democrats plan to go it alone on stimulus legislation in response to the Wuhan coronavirus. Apparently, they will not compromise in order to pick up Republican support.

There’s nothing wrong with that. The Dems have a majority in the House and the functional equivalent of one in the Senate. They can do whatever they want on stimulus, thanks to the miracle of “budget reconciliation.”

What Biden can’t plausibly do is claim to be a unifier. That claim is patently inconsistent with his unwillingness to compromise with at least a few Republicans.

The Democrats’ excuse is that the Obama years prove it’s not possible to work with Republicans. But, as Ramesh Ponnuru shows, the Obama years prove no such thing. Biden and his fellow Dems are peddling a myth. Barack Obama was as uninterested in working with Republicans when the Democrats controlled Congress as Joe Biden is today.

Obama, a world class purveyor of myths, said this in 2010:

I came in expressing a strong spirit of bipartisanship, and what was clear was that even in the midst of crisis, there were those who made decisions based on a quick political calculus rather than on what the country needed.

As evidence, he claimed that he went to share ideas with House Republicans about the stimulus bill, only to find out that their leader, John Boehner, had already issued a statement opposing it. He later complained that Mitch McConnell announced at the start of Obama’s first term that his top priority was preventing a second one. Democrats have also asserted that they tried repeatedly to meet Republicans halfway on health care, but were rebuffed.

Ponnuru shows that all of this is false. First, before Obama met with House Republicans in January 2009, House Democrats had already introduced a stimulus bill without GOP input. Obama reportedly said he was open to changing the bill, but it didn’t happen. GOP House leader Boehner nonetheless stated that he would still like to work with Obama on the legislation.

Second, McConnell made his remark just before the midterm elections of 2010, not when Obama “came in.” And he also said he would work with Obama if he moderated, the way the previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, had. McConnell added, “I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.” That’s model conduct by an opposition party.

Third, although Obamacare included ideas some Republicans had earlier favored, it also included items for which they had never shown much support. For example, says Ponnuru, it has been decades since any congressional Republican has voted for tax increases on the scale the bill required.

It’s true that the Obama administration made a significant concession by dropping the public option from the legislation. But, as Ponnuru reminds us, it had to make that move to win sufficient support from Democrats.

Ponnuru adds that Obama refused to make other adjustments, such as including medical malpractice reform in the bill. This addition, important to Republicans, would not have changed any of Obamacare’s basic features, but the Obama White House rejected it for fear of offending trial lawyers.

Ponnuru does not address an event that’s at the core of the myth of Republican non-cooperation with Obama — the inauguration night GOP dinner. According to a book, at dinner that night 15 or so guests, including a number of congressional Republicans, plotted against the Obama administration.

Most of the “plotting” consisted of things one would expect an opposition party to do in this era — e.g., tough questioning of the Treasury Secretary nominee about his problematic tax returns and ads against vulnerable congressional Democrats.

For purposes of this post, the key item was a promise to show united opposition to the president’s economic policies. Kevin McCarthy allegedly said, “we’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

Whether McCarthy actually said this, and if so in what context, I do not know. But challenging Democrats on every bill isn’t the same thing as opposing legislation that’s reached through compromise. And I’m certain that if Obama had proposed legislation that Republicans favored — a tax cut, for example — McCarthy and company would have jumped on board.

In any case, neither McConnell nor Boehner attended the dinner. Whatever was agreed to that night can’t be said to represent GOP policy given their absence.

But even if McConnell and Boehner were on board, the dinner can’t be an excuse for Obama’s refusal to work with Republicans like Susan Collins, Arlen Specter (before he switched parties), and John McCain. These Senators certainly weren’t taking direction from attendees like Jim DeMint and Newt Gingrich.

The unwillingness of Obama and Biden to work with moderate Republicans in 2009 mirrors Biden’s unwillingness to work with moderate Republicans now (and Susan Collins is still around). The only difference is that Obama had more of a mandate and bigger congressional margins than Biden has.

Even with his narrow mandate and his razor thin congressional majority, Biden still has the right to go it alone. But no one should be fooled by his pose as a unifier eager to reach across the aisle if only Republicans weren’t so hopelessly partisan.

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