Everyone’s writing about the high (or was it low?) political theater that occurred yesterday when President Obama took questions and exchanged jabs with Republican house members in Baltimore. The fact that the exchange took place at all was rather unusual; that the cameras were allowed to stay in the room and record it turned the exchange into a memorable and possibly “teachable” moment.
Obama campaigned on the notion of achieving a new bipartisan atmosphere in Washington, yet after one year he hasn’t made any significant progress on this front, and if anything official Washington is more polarized–and paralyzed–than ever. So it was interesting that Obama, in front of a large national audience (or what will be a large national audience by the time all the rebroadcasts and coverage are finished) was able to make the case that Republicans and Democrats both have created a virtual Catch-22 situation in which they demonize the other side to their constituents and so, having done that, leave themselves “boxed in” in a way that precludes bipartisan effort. By demonizing your opponent, the theory goes, you whip up such intensely negative feelings toward the opponent among your partisans that you cannot be seen to be cooperating with “the enemy” or face getting voted out of office. This — at the same time that the American people are disgusted with Washington gridlock and on some level want to see some problems get solved.
It struck me that more than just a call for civility, this was a well rendered argument for why civility benefits everyone. Taking a civil tone and conceding that the opposition has at least decent character and honest intentions is a necessary precondition to actual bipartisan having a chance to take root.
Did the message resonate? Not in the room. All the interviews of republican lawmakers I saw interviewed after it was over seemed like ‘business as usual’. But I have some faint hope that the explanation of how hypertisanship becomes inevitable if you start by demonizing your opponent will resonate with voters, particularly independents. Yeah, I know.