"Republicans and Democrats do something." I kid you not. That was the headline I heard on the radio driving home. I switched channels and still heard it.
In Washington, it is news. Almost extraordinary. Is that pitiful or what?
The "something" in question was the congressional approval of trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The agreements, which have been in limbo for years, were sent to Congress by President Barack Obama for approval only nine days ago. Majorities in both Houses agreed that the free-trade agreements could help to create jobs in the United States, not to mention expanding access for Americans to competitive products made abroad.
The swift approval signals two things.
First, the protectionism that once dominated trade debates — the very question of whether expanded free trade would create American jobs or cost them — seems to have lost out, to me at least, in favor of the right answer. The history of protectionism is almost undisputed: It costs jobs, rather than saving or creating them. This is not to say that there aren't those on both sides of the aisle who continue to disagree with the president and Congress. Still, consensus was achieved. Imagine that.
Second, these people are capable of working together and finding common ground if they choose to. Simple as that. The problem is that most of the time, they don't. Now, I'm inclined to blame the Republicans for that, but that kind of blame game is exactly what most people don't want.
A business reporter calling on a completely different story recently asked me why Obama didn't stick it to the Senate, sending over a bill that he favored and forcing the other side to engage in a filibuster that would, he hoped, be seen as an obstructionist tactic.
I had to laugh because, at least in the last budget battle, I was saying much the same thing: The president should draw a line in the sand on something like corporate tax loopholes, where a majority of the country is on his side, and then force Republicans to stand up and support tax advantages for selected corporate entities that are really being paid for by the rest of us. If they're going to declare his proposals DOA, then why not put the focus on a proposal that opponents might be taken to task for squelching?
I also had to laugh because it's clear to me that this is not such an original idea. In politics, there aren't many new ideas under the sun. I can promise you that someone close to the president, then and now, has put similar ideas on the table, at least for consideration. I also have no doubt that those considering it, the president included, understood perfectly well the advantages we saw in it. I also have no doubt that they had very good reasons for accepting it.
People want Democrats and Republicans to work together, more than they want almost anything else in Washington. They want them to focus on jobs — that is, jobs for the voters, not the politicians. I really don't think Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell scores points with anybody but the minority of Obama-haters in this country when he says that his priority in the next year is to see Obama defeated. But I also fear that the president will not score points if it looks like he is picking fights in Congress for the sake of making the Republicans look bad.
Everybody who takes the oath of office pledges to put public welfare over partisan victory. I suppose McConnell would tell you that he believes the most important thing he can do for the public welfare is to elect a Republican president. And it's easy for him to say that, because none of the Republican senators has to win a national election next fall. Indeed, most of them don't even have to run in their home states. And even though every senator (like every alderman) sees a president when he shaves in the morning (or when she does her hair), none of them is running for president this time around, averting any claim that he or she is the leader of the do-nothing Senate.
As for Obama, he's really left with few choices. If he doesn't want to anger a good many Americans, especially swing voters, by playing tit-for-tat with McConnell, his only other option is to try to go over his head, to get out of Washington and try to win over the only audience Washington really cares about.
In the meantime, perhaps that audience will see in this trade bill approval a powerful reason to insist that if Washington could do it this week, it should be able to do it next week and the week after that — at least to the point that it's reported as news and not a special bulletin from the front.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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