Throughout the 2012 election cycle, President Obama was routinely asked about his prospects of working with congressional Republicans in a second term. The question was predicated on an unstated assumption: Obama took office eager to work constructively with GOP lawmakers who held him in contempt; his attempts at compromise came up short; and many wanted to know if this dynamic would persist for another four years.
The president nearly always responded by talking about “breaking the fever.” As Obama saw it, Republicans were effectively driven to madness by a desire to defeat him, but after he was re-elected, the “fever” would break; GOP lawmakers would no longer feel the need to reject every attempt at compromise; and policymaking could return to something approaching normalcy.
We now know, of course, that this didn’t happen. In fact, the Republican “fever” has only intensified, and the GOP’s revulsion towards compromise with Obama appears to have gotten worse.
Which leads us to the 2016 election cycle and Hillary Clinton’s confrontation with the same question the president heard in the last cycle. Consider this exchange from Tuesday between the Democratic frontrunner and CBS News’ Charlie Rose.
ROSE: A lot of people think the biggest problem for America is Washington. And that’s reflected in some of the politics that we see.CLINTON: Yes, that’s true. But look at the way our Founders set it up. They set up this separation of powers. And they made it really difficult to get things done. And some years it’s really hard. We’re in one of these periods where we have a minority within the other party that doesn’t believe in compromise, doesn’t believe in reaching consensus –ROSE: But there you go attacking them. That’s not the way to do it!CLINTON: No. Because part of what you have to do is make it clear to everyone else who is in that party that there is room for negotiation.
Clinton’s answers were important, but not quite as illustrative as Rose’s line of questioning.
Note that everything Clinton said happens to be true. Objectively, by any fair measure, there’s a significant contingent among congressional Republicans that “doesn’t believe in compromise” and “doesn’t believe in reaching consensus.” I’m hard pressed to imagine any observer, of any ideological stripe, making the case that Clinton’s wrong about this.
But as it happens, for some, it doesn’t matter if what Clinton said is true. If you’ve ever wondered why so many media professionals cling to the “both sides are always to blame, facts be damned” narrative, this offers a powerful hint: to acknowledge simple truths about many congressional Republicans sounds like an “attack,” and must therefore be avoided.
The obvious question is how Clinton – or Obama, or any Democrat, really – is supposed to respond to this line of inquiry once the truth has been deemed verboten. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent had a good take on this the other day:
You are not supposed to point out that structural factors – the combination of a system that requires compromise to function, plus (in the current situation) a set of incentives that actively discourages many House Republicans from compromising with Obama – might be the cause of what is happening in Washington.Rather, one must always pledge to “make the system work” through the application of mystical personal qualities, whether it be schmoozing, leadership, or sheer force of will.
I think that’s right. It’s the answer that many pundits and those who repeat the “why doesn’t Obama lead?” whine are probably looking for.
Note that when Charlie Rose objected to Clinton’s accurate comments, he specifically interjected, “That’s not the way to do it!” He didn’t say what is ”the way to do it,” but it probably has something thing to do with “the application of mystical personal qualities.” Maybe if Clinton had vowed to be super-duper nice to Republicans in the hopes that they’d work with her in good faith, the exchange would have gone smoother.
But I still think accurate assessments based on reality are more compelling.
As for Clinton’s answer, her basic plan is hardly outlandish. She seems to believe that many Republican hardliners are simply out of reach, but there are likely still some GOP lawmakers who are approachable and open to deal-making. It’s a recipe for incremental progress, at least until/unless voters rebuke Republican radicalism, forcing the party to change direction.
That doesn’t strike me as Clinton “attacking” Republicans, but your mileage may vary.