Praising the president’s friends

Let us now praise five Republicans who are placing the country’s economic interests ahead of their party’s political interests. The list includes two governors, Charlie Crist of Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and three senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

All five have supported President Obama’s stimulus package, and all have offered explanations similar to the one that Crist delivered on “Meet the Press”: “There are times when you’re in a crisis, and we all need to work together to get through those times.”

He’s absolutely right, but in today’s Washington, working together is usually derided as a weak-kneed, fainthearted and hopelessly naive approach to politics. The forces of instant indignation and ideological purity are ready to leap in front of a cable-TV camera and denounce anyone who dares speak words like compromise or accommodation.

Just a few months ago, Barack Obama was campaigning on the promise to change the way Washington works. The voters gave him a decisive victory, yet many Republicans are acting as if the election never happened.

Not a single House Republican voted for the president’s economic program and in the Senate, only Snowe, Collins and Specter crossed party lines to support him. The GOP’s calculation is as clear as it is cynical: They’re betting, even hoping, that Obama will fail. Then they can run in 2010 on the slogan: “It’s their fault. Vote Republican.”

That’s a big gamble. As Collins insists, “People don’t want us to be the party that says no, just no.” And the latest polls back her up. Seventy-nine percent told the New York Times/CBS survey that Republicans should be “working in a bipartisan way,” while only 17 percent said “sticking to Republican policies” should be their top priority.

In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama’s approval rating is 68 percent, Congressional Democrats get 50 percent, while the Republicans are at 38 percent. Voters prefer Democrats by 26 points to handle the country’s “main problems”; in party identification, they hold a 12-point lead.

So why do the Republicans insist on being “the party that says no”? For one thing, their moderate wing has virtually disappeared. There’s not a single Republican left in the House from New England and only three from New York. Obama might reach out his hand but few are willing to take it.

Tom Davis, recently retired as a Republican Congressman from Virginia, explains: “The Republican caucus has shifted. Basically, it has become more conservative and shrunk over time. Actually, I like to say that it’s shrunk from a political party, which is a coalition, into a club where everybody agrees with each other.”

Moreover, the remaining moderates are pilloried by guardians of conservative orthodoxy, from Rush Limbaugh to activist groups like the Club for Growth, which encourage primary challenges against them. “If you’re a Republican, you’re constantly looking over your right shoulder,” Davis says. “Anybody who breaks ranks pays a political price,” adds Snowe.

Democrats must share the blame. Obama made a big mistake in allowing the highly partisan leadership of the House to draft the stimulus package with virtually no input from Republicans. The president invited a few GOPers to the White House to watch the Super Bowl, but colas and cookies are no substitute for real consultation. And the hyper-partisans on the left are as bad as those on the right, denouncing Obama’s bridge-building efforts as “bland centrism” and “happy talk,” in the words of one liberal pundit.

It’s harder than ever to be a centrist in Washington. What do you put on your bumper sticker, “dynamic moderation”? The purists on both sides will always be louder and shriller and more appealing to the producers on cable TV. Congress is starting to resemble the Middle East, a place cursed by memory, grievance and a bottomless thirst for revenge.

That’s why Obama has to ignore the hardliners on both sides and keep trying to fulfill his campaign pledge of more civility and consultation. In his first speech to Congress this week, he emphasized that “the American people expect us to build common ground” and he spent a lot of time shaking hands with Republicans afterwards. He knows that only bipartisan solutions will fix healthcare, energy and, above all, costly entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.

As Schwarzenegger puts it, “I think the president right now needs team players.” The forces of moderation and compromise must be encouraged. The president needs them, and so does the country.

Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at

Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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