I watched Obama's Q&A at the House Republican retreat
. It's very long, but really worth watching if you want some insight into bi-partisanship in Washington. (The Q&A piece starts around 20min in.) Here's my summary.
It's clear (at least to me) that Obama desires bi-partisanship in some form, but has gone about it to date in an extremely sub-optimal way. I think there are two general approaches.
The first approach, which Obama has done, is to say we're in charge, and to those of you not in charge, if you have ideas, we'll hear them out, and include them in our plans. He reiterated this approach multiple times in the State of the Union and again during the Q&A session.
It's not lip service. You can tell he has been listening to some of these ideas. He is clearly angry that even though some are in incorporated into Democratic bills, Republicans have been voting against these bills. He sees the bills as compromises. And to some extent they are--Democrats have adapted their bills in effort to get some Republican support.
Yet consider the situation from the perspective of the Republican house member, Paul Ryan
. Ryan had a completely sensible and constructive dialog with Obama in the Q&A session, which Obama acknowledged.
Congressmen Ryan illustrates a group of Republicans who are willing to work with Democrats. I don't know how big this group is, but it does exist. I watched several committee sessions this year on C-SPAN where Ryan et. al. offered amendment after amendment that were all voted down on party lines.
These were not all partisan amendments. Some were simply mechanical tweaks on bills, clearly thought out to help them operate more efficiently or provide better oversight opportunities for Congress. The message though was clear: we don't want any of your help constructing our bills; you Republicans will have to vote our bill up or down.
This brings me to the second approach to bi-partisanship: bring the other side into the bill construction process. Make them co-sponsors. Let them into the back rooms. Approve their amendments if they are reasonable. And instead of just letting them email their ideas into a black hole, let them work with you in real time to incorporate them (when appropriate).
Even if the end result is a very similar bill, you will have much more of a chance for Republican votes. Those Republicans willing to cross the isle and compromise like Ryan will have bought into the process and will have a real stake in it. More importantly, they will have something they can show their constituents. They can say this or that piece is mine--I worked with the majority party to get that for you.
The other approach just gives them a take it or leave it decision: an up or down vote on a bill they didn't help write, had no say in, and were actively denied participation in its construction. Even if their idea is in there in some form, it isn't really their idea anymore.
Back to Obama. I realize it's a hard thing as President to try to increase bi-partisanship in Congress, given that you aren't really in charge of it. However, it is clear there is a lot of indirect power.
Obama is now using that power to start to force the Congressional leaders of both parties to meet on a regular basis. And he himself is doing more things like this Q&A session. I think that is a great start. I still don't get why he didn't do this stuff from the get-go, but better late than never.
So I'm hopeful. I hope he also puts more pressure on lower members of Congress. In particular, I hope he helps Republicans with legitimate amendments to get those passed in committee.
I'm also a bit skeptical, though. In the Q&A, Obama kept going on about how both sides need to stop attacking each other and be constructive. The problem with this message is he keeps speaking to the audience (Republicans) as a solid block. I think that is his core mistake.
He is frustrated, and in his frustration he has written off the entire other side by retreating to his side entirely. Instead, he should pick off those people like Ryan willing to work together and promote them and their ideas.