A Bipartisan Dupe

One of the reason that I love Paul Krugman so much is that he writes nary a word with which I disagree. Friday’s column (“Played for a Sucker,” The New York Times, 16 November 2007) on Barack Obama’s adoption of Republican “crisis” language regarding Social Security was exactly the sort of rhetoric I would hope for from a vigilant left.

But Mr. Obama’s Social Security mistake was, in fact, exactly what you’d expect from a candidate who promises to transcend partisanship in an age when that’s neither possible nor desirable.

I don’t believe Mr. Obama is a closet privatizer. He is, however, someone who keeps insisting that he can transcend the partisanship of our times — and in this case, that turned him into a sucker.

Mr. Obama wanted a way to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton — and for Mr. Obama, who has said that the reason “we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions” is that “politics has become so bitter and partisan,” joining in the attack on Senator Clinton’s Social Security position must have seemed like a golden opportunity to sound forceful yet bipartisan.

But Social Security isn’t a big problem that demands a solution; it’s a small problem, way down the list of major issues facing America, that has nonetheless become an obsession of Beltway insiders. And on Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want.

We all wish that American politics weren’t so bitter and partisan. But if you try to find common ground where none exists — which is the case for many issues today — you end up being played for a fool. And that’s what has just happened to Mr. Obama.

The left should absolutely not lay central New Deal programs — programs for which the opportunity to create may never come again — down on the negotiating table in exchange for some amorphous good will on the part of the right. And Mr. Obama or any other candidate should get that message in no uncertain terms.

Seven years ago, during the 2000 campaign, there was a fairly significant sub-debate about how time spent as a Senator did not do a very good job of prepare a politician for the presidency. The Senate is a collegial atmosphere and owing to the long terms of office, the staggered election cycle and the fact that states can’t be gerrymandered, it is a much more moderate environment than the rough-and-tumble ideological circus sideshow that is the House of Representatives — and really the rest of U.S. politics beyond the hallowed halls of the north wing of the Capitol building.

I would like to think that all Mr. Obama’s happy talk about bipartisanship is just political claptrap designed to appeal to moderate voters who don’t understand what all the partisan bickering is about. But it increasingly seems like real naivety. I would say that nothing in his experience to date has prepared Mr. Obama to fight the kind of partisan wars that he will have to fight to become the president and then more of the same to pass a legislative agenda. And for that reason he should be ruled out at the party’s presidential nominee.

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