The political world probably made a little too much of President Obama’s comments yesterday about the Gang of Six framework. Most of the coverage said he endorsed the bipartisan agreement, but a closer look shows that’s not quite what happened. This was more an example of him using the blueprint to pressure intransigent House Republicans, not backing the details of a plan he hasn’t seen.
Reality notwithstanding, the conventional wisdom was apparently set very quickly — Obama is on board with the Gang of Six plan. Mike Allen talked to a Republican on the Hill yesterday who responded with an important perspective.
A Senate Republican leadership aide emails with subject line “Gang of Six”: “Background guidance: The President killed any chance of its success by 1) Embracing it. 2) Hailing the fact that it increases taxes. 3) Saying it mirrors his own plan.” [emphasis added]
Again, just to clarify, Obama didn’t really embrace the plan and didn’t say it mirrors his own plan.
But the larger point is worth remembering for the next year and a half: if there’s even a perception that Obama likes an idea, Republicans will reject that idea. Merit doesn’t matter; ideology doesn’t matter; even the source of the idea doesn’t matter. If the president wants something — if it even looks like he wants something — congressional Republicans will reflexively oppose it. This has already happened many, many times, even in instances in which the president has thrown his support behind Republican proposals.
[H]ere we get to the problem that’s recurred throughout Obama’s time in office. If members of Congress think like partisans who want to capture the White House, then the smart strategy for them is to refuse to do whatever it is the president wants. The content of the president’s desire is irrelevant. But the more ambitious his desire is, the more important it is to turn him down.
After all, if the President wants a big bipartisan deal on the deficit, then a big bipartisan deal on the deficit is “a win for President Obama,” which means a loss for the anti-Obama side.
In theory, if Republicans were eager to get something important done, this knee-jerk response wouldn’t matter. In 1996, for example, Gingrich & Co. really wanted to get welfare reform done, even if it became “a win for President Clinton.” The goal was policy oriented, but had a political component, too — congressional Republicans wanted to run for re-election pointing to a meaningful accomplishment.
Those motivations have since disappeared, and congressional Republicans now perceive governing as something to avoid, especially if it makes the White House look productive.
If any important legislative initiatives are going to pass during over the next 18 months, the president would be wise to express skepticism on any proposal he actually likes.