House Dems Can Play Tough, Too

If Barack Obama’s Inauguration has brought a new spirit of bipartisanship to Washington, apparently no one in the House of Representatives got the memo. Two weeks into the Obama administration, and the partisan warring in the House seems as intense as ever, with the entire Republican caucus voting against the president’s nearly $900 billion stimulus package.

As a result, heading into their retreat on Thursday, House Democrats appear less inclined than ever to compromise with their GOP rivals. But perhaps it’s the best thing for both caucuses and even for Obama’s political agenda. If Republicans and Democrats want to lay down their ideological markers in the House — while everyone else in Washington starts to play nice — this could be an appropriate division of labor and one that will lead to a more fulsome public debate about governmental priorities in the age of economic crisis.

In recent days, House Republicans have portrayed their unity in opposition to the stimulus package as a vote of conscience against the expanding reach of the federal government. While this puts the GOP in the unenviable position of appearing to be rooting against a short-term economic improvement, there is nothing wrong with confronting the policy dictates of the party in power. Even in a post-partisan era, it’s important the loyal opposition is just that.

At the very least, the Republicans have given comfort to their conservative base of supporters. And before the rending of garments over the death of bipartisanship so early into Obama’s term, it’s worth remembering that 40 House Republicans voted to support the expansion of children’s health care.

But two can play the game of ideological political warfare. If House Republicans want to stand by their conservative principles, House Democrats would be wise to adopt a similar approach. From a policy standpoint, Democrats should use their weekend retreat to plan a push for a nakedly progressive policy agenda. Whether it means supporting union card check legislation, birth control provisions scrubbed from the original stimulus or creative spending ideas like the one being pushed by local groups in Massachusetts to allocate 1 percent of federal spending to public arts projects, Democrats in the House should be unencumbered in advocating progressive priorities.

The benefits of such an approach are manifold. For starters, when you have a Democratic president who adopts a post-partisan agenda, it is important to have political checks from both the right and the left. If House Democrats can put a progressive imprint on congressional legislation, there’s a better chance of crafting final bills that reflect these priorities. As much as Obama wants to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans, one would imagine that he wouldn’t mind if House liberals were “forcing” him to embrace elements of their agenda.

And from a political standpoint, there is no greater benefit for Obama than to appear to be the centrist voice of reason between left and right. By playing Obama’s political foil, House Democrats help ensure that he maintains his bipartisan bona fides.

However, the benefits to progressives go beyond the programmatic. For eight years, budgetary battles have been fought on the GOP’s ideological turf. There are many liberals who would love to have a serious national debate about tax breaks for low-income Americans, the importance of public art or even the importance of expanding Medicaid to cover birth control. What better place to have that discussion than in the so-called people’s house? While the final result may be predetermined, because of the Democrats’ strong majority, the public debate on these issues is a worthwhile endeavor and one that might move the country in the Democrats’ ideological direction.

But the greatest benefit may be political. House Republicans have not realized that the world has changed; incessant attacks on big government spending and charges of socialism are not as resonant — just ask John McCain and Sarah Palin. It is one thing to oppose spending as an abstract phenomenon, but asking Republicans to vote against specific provisions may put them in a more trying political position. If GOP members want to man the conservative barricades, perhaps the Democrats’ best course is to let them.

For the first time in 15 years, House Democrats have the political and policy wind at their backs. It’s no time to put on the brakes.

Michael A. Cohen, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, is author of “Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America.”

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