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After the White House Tax Cut Summit: Partisanship Lives On

4 years ago
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Nothing is as cloying as political Washington on its best behavior. The mood was marzipan after Tuesday's bridge-over-troubled-tax-cuts White House smile-button summit with the congressional leadership of both parties. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reflected the new accentuate-the-positive spirit when he said, "I think we all agree there's no particular reason why we can't find areas of agreement and do some important things for the American people over the next two years."
Gone was the rancor of the recent election during which Barack Obama talked about how the GOP had driven the car of state into a ditch and the Republicans hinted that the president's patron saint was Karl Marx. In its place was the rhetoric of togetherness. "The American people did not vote for gridlock," Obama said after the White House social. "They didn't vote for unyielding partisanship. They're demanding cooperation and they're demanding progress." A tad more smugly (and who could blame him?) incoming House Speaker John Boehner said, "It was interesting that both Democrats and Republicans understood what the American people had to say on Election Day."
Of course, it was all for show in a political pantomime that fooled only those already credulous enough to believe in Taliban imposters. By Thursday, at the latest, Washington will be back to its old ways by treating the lame-duck session of Congress as a blood sport. Republicans will snarl about the Democrats' support for job-killing tax increases while Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will fulminate about the GOP's preference for millionaires over hard-working American families. Congressional leaders in both parties will dispense with Standard English and lapse back into a language of epithets known as Partisan Speak.
The truth is that both parties have misread the lessons of Campaign 2010. This was the wave election that demonstrated that congressional races now and forever have been nationalized. No longer will incumbents be excoriated in 30-second spots for voting the wrong way on minor pieces of local-interest legislation like, say, the Kumquat Reform Act.
Two of the architects of the 63-seat Republican House landslide -- Brad Todd and Mike Shields -- underscored in a revealing how-we-won article in Politico that congressional campaigns are no longer individual contests: "Democrats wanted an unconnected series of local elections...But we wanted every race to be a choice about the national agenda...It just took less money to make the case that Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.) had voted with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- a subject already on voter's minds -- than to litigate local issues."
What this means is that congressional campaigns of the future will revolve around Big Things -- broad national themes -- not obscure House votes yanked out of context by day-of-doom narrators in 30-second attack ads. Television commercials that are out of step with the national mood no longer work -- as the Republicans discovered in trying to localize the 2006 elections (it didn't work; Pelosi became speaker) and the Democrats learned to their dismay this year.
Somehow this obvious message has been lost on the congressional leadership of both parties. They remain obsessed with short-term tactics and purportedly clever gimmicks designed to dominate the cable TV news cycle for as long as three hours. Does anyone believe that the Democrats will win a single vote anywhere by endlessly talking about "hard-working American families" as Obama did Tuesday? (Doesn't the president understand that members of lazy American families also vote?).
Even worse is the Republican obsession with dropping the last two letters in Democratic Party. Lamar Alexander, the Senate Republican whip, offered Tuesday a classic example of political attack language that sounds peculiarly detached from ordinary American life when he snapped, "In bringing up so many different issues in this lame-duck session, the Democrat leadership of the Senate is insisting on an encore for a concert that drew a lot of boos."
It is all so parochial. Voters could grow angry over what is passed in the lame-duck session, but few will flock to the barricades waving banners that read, "TOO MANY ISSUES." Also, every time a prominent Republican painfully says "Democrat Party," it suggests that he learned English as a second language.
House Democrats this week are plotting ways to force a vote on legislation only extending the Bush tax cuts for those earning less than $250,000. This was the White House position as well until Team Obama went into a fetal crouch after the election. Nancy Pelosi and Company know this version of the tax bill will not pass, but they fantasize about embarrassing the Republicans with a roll call that puts them squarely on the side of the wealthy. The problem with this short-term gambit is that no one is apt to remember this particular tax-cut vote by the 2012 elections. The GOP may indeed be tarred as the party of millionaires, but it will take far more than a few stray votes during the lame-duck session to do it.
This kind of politically motivated gimmickry is what voters hate about Washington and Congress. They accept ideological differences on questions of principle, but they recoil at locker-room, towel-snapping over partisan trivia. Cynical over being suckered, most voters accept that bipartisanship is beguiling myth rather than a realistic expectation. But what they do not understand is the unending rancor and vitriol that defines Washington except at that those rare Pollyannaish moments when the bipartisan congressional leadership makes a pilgrimage to the White House.

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