Three big election wins for Republicans in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, and analysts are talking as if Democrats' only hope is to veer to the center and rewrite their agenda along more GOP-friendly lines. Maybe. There are good reasons why President Obama should pursue a more bipartisan path, but expectations should be low. Three points:
1) Voters love the idea of bipartisanship. President Obama should talk about it every chance he gets. Some of the most enduring changes to our social contract (Social Security, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid) have come with the votes of both parties. Bipartisanship would help create public support for the crucial but unpopular policy changes the nation desperately needs to make (reduce the deficit, fix the finances of Social Security and Medicare). Obama should look for opportunities to find common ground with the GOP. But let's be realistic. Republicans have rescued themselves from political oblivion by defining his policies as socialist, irresponsible and ineffective. They'd be crazy to quit now unless he can mousetrap them into looking obstructionist and irresponsible. Good luck with that. They're far cleverer than Democrats at defining the debate: Bailouts. Government takeover. Death panels.
2) So it's not clear he'll have a willing partner if he goes down this road. Remember when Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus drove Democrats nuts by taking three months last fall to try to negotiate a bipartisan health reform deal in secret meetings with Republicans? And lead GOP negotiator Chuck Grassley was sending out fundraising letters promising to oppose Obamacare? If bipartisanship was going to work anywhere, it was in the Senate, and its failure there should be a red flag. The distance between the parties on big issues is enormous. On health reform, for example, the core issue for Democrats was to cover as many uninsured people as possible. The Congressional Budget Office said the House and Senate bills would extend coverage to more than 30 million. When House Republicans wrote their dream bill last year, CBO said it would cover only an additional 3 million.
3) The polarization of the two parties is one of the nation's most serious problems because it has made necessary change virtually impossible. Someone has to begin transforming this culture, and realistically only a president has the stature to try. But if all Obama does is look for bipartisan achievements, he'll do small things he didn't take office to accomplish. It's hard to see anything on the order of welfare reform now, and the notion of starting over with GOP ideas on health reform or scaling back to a few popular items ignores just how hard it is to make one change to the health insurance system (require coverage of people with pre-existing conditions) without having to do another (require everyone to buy health insurance) and another (subsidize it for those who can't afford it) and so on.
Citing a story by Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee, columnist E.J. Dionne likens the health reform debate to living in a house whose kitchen is being renovated. Everyone hates the renovation, but when it's over, they love the new kitchen. Passing health reform legislation has been so ugly that the reality can't help but dispel the idea that it's a perverse scheme to destroy liberty. A bit of non-bipartisan advice: Some things are simply worth doing. Finish the kitchen.
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George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.