Lessons learned, redux

LESSONS LEARNED, REDUX…. As part of his ongoing offensive against the man who defeated him, John McCain continued to lash out at President Obama yesterday, blasting the economic stimulus package poised to become law. As the Senate debate was wrapping up, the Arizona Republican said, referring to the White House, “I hope they’ve learned a lesson.”

On its face, I find this rather amusing. Obama got what he wanted — an ambitious package with the spending-to-tax-cut ratio he envisioned from the outset. “I hope they’ve learned a lesson” is the kind of phrase that applies when one fails to get what they want. It’s like telling the coach who just won the Super Bowl, “If you do things differently next time, you’ll get a better result.”

That said, it seems that the president and his team have, to borrow McCain’s language, learned a lesson. On Thursday night, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel suggested the White House had overdone their initial outreach to Republicans, telling reporters Obama’s aides got “ahead of ourselves” when it came to striving for bipartisan comity.

Yesterday, White House staffers were signaling that they wouldn’t repeat this in the future.

Advisers concluded that they allowed the measure of bipartisanship to be defined as winning Republican votes rather than bringing civility to the debate, distracting attention from what have otherwise been major legislative victories. Although Mr. Obama vowed to keep reaching out to Republicans, advisers now believe the environment will probably not change in coming months.

Rather than forging broad consensus with Republicans, the Obama advisers said they would have to narrow their ambitions and look for discrete areas where they might build temporary coalitions based on regional interests rather than party, as on energy legislation. They said they would also turn to Republican governors for support — a tactic that showed promise during the debate over the economic package — even if they found few Republican allies in Washington.

The Center for American Progress’ John Podesta said Obama and his team probably had unrealistic expectations — he called it “wishful thinking” — and moving forward, the president should expect more of what he’s already seen. “What would make it change?” Podesta asked, referring to the Republican determination to challenge Obama. “If you’re going to do this at the moment of greatest need, at the height of his popularity, what sort of thing would get you to change?”

And you know what? That’s fine. Republicans are the opposition party; they’re supposed to oppose. We have a political system in which one party wants to move the country in one direction, and a rival party wants to move in a different direction. Voters expressed a preference, picked one over the other, and so the majority party is moving ahead with its agenda, while the minority party screams bloody murder. That’s pretty much how it’s supposed to work.

I don’t doubt that President Obama will continue to have a dialog with congressional Republicans. He’ll keep them apprised of his intentions; he’ll hear them out when they have complaints; and he’ll maintain a respectful tone. But after the stimulus fight, the president, I suspect, has “learned a lesson” about how to engage a party that has philosophical, practical, and strategic goals that are wholly at odds with his own.

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