The standard criticism of Obama's bipartisan outreach goes like this. He met with Republicans on Capitol Hill. They stiffed him. They showed that they're impossibly troglodytic. Why should he waste any more time on these people? Just crush them.
But here's the thing. This criticism, and this entire debate about the efficacy of his bipartisan overtures, presumes that Obama's audience for his bipartisan talk is the Republicans in Congress and the conservatives in Washington.
But that is not his intended audience. His audience is the country.
True, he went to see congressional Republicans in an attempt to fire up the peace pipe. Well, as Barry Goldwater famously said, you have to go to hunting where the ducks are. But I think that even those meetings were conducted only partially for the benefit of those Republicans. They were conducted for citizens, so they could see that he was trying something different.
This is a good point, but frankly, I'd go further. I'd say those meetings were almost entirely about optics. The fact is that Republican critics are right: Obama really didn't do much beyond symbolism to reach out to the GOP during the crafting of the stimulus package.
I know, I know: $300 billion in tax cuts, lots of yakking, family planning cuts, etc. etc. But seriously. Was any of that really the result of negotiating with Republicans? The tax cuts were mostly in there for two reasons: (a) they were campaign promises, and (b) the Obama team couldn't come up with $800 billion in spending that would feed into the economy fast enough. Tax cuts weren't there because Obama asked Republicans what they wanted in the bill, they were there because he didn't have much choice.
Beyond that, what did Republicans get? Nothing much. A few symbolic cuts in culture war outlays that are almost certain to be restored in the regular budget anyway. Some meetings where Obama listened carefully, said some soothing words, and didn't change a thing. And that's about it. In the end the final package included some modest changes demanded by three centrist Republicans, but that was only because they held the whip hand and were able to force them on him. Bipartisanship had nothing to do with it.
And you know what? I think this is fine. The crackpot wing of the GOP was never going to come around anyway (they're going to need several more years in the wilderness before they start to regain their sanity), and in the meantime Obama gets to bask in warm national glow of having tried his best. Eventually this will pay off as a few vulnerable Republicans figure out that endless obstructionism isn't doing them any good in the polls — and look over there, there's a midterm election coming up! Then, suddenly, genuine bipartisanship will be back in style. And Obama will end up the winner.