Republicans Try To Triangulate: Obama, Good: House Dems, Bad

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 6:54 PM EST

An opposition party has to oppose someone, right?

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama held separate meetings with GOP leaders in the House and Senate to discuss the stimulus bill moving through Congress. Afterward, the Republicans talked very nicely about the new president, saying that they appreciated that Obama was reaching out and listening to them. During the meetings, several of the Republicans noted that they welcomed "the tone that [Obama] had brought to Washington" and his "willingness to seek their views," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. In fact, Gibbs added, Representative Mike Pence, a leading conservative from Indiana, ended the House-side meeting by declaring that the door to the Republican House conference would always be open to Obama.

As a matter or realpolitik, the Republicans had little choice but to be darn gracious toward Obama. The president's early approval ratings are stratospheric. And with the economic crash continuing (if not accelerating, given this week's job loss numbers), a majority of Americans are rooting for the president, hoping whatever he tries to do about the economy will succeed. On Monday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent out an email touting a poll noting that 66 percent of Americans support the economic stimulus package put together by the Democrats in the House and supported by Obama. It would be foolish--except for Republicans from the most Limbaugh-loving areas of the nation--to stand in Obama's way. And, no small matter, the GOPers don't have the votes--particularly in the House--to stop him and the Democrats.

But can the Republicans simply cave? They have raised a fuss about certain portions of the stimulus package, labeling some provisions pork and calling for more tax cuts. Their complaints about a provision that would extend birth control coverage under Medicaid did lead Obama to ask the House Dems to jettison this piece of package. (And jettisoned it was.) But the Republicans have not gone after Obama.

Consider this statement released by House Republican Whip Eric Cantor after the meeting with Obama:

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Today, we had another positive exchange of ideas with President Obama where Republicans reinforced the need to help middle-class families and small businesses....Now that we have presented workable solutions to the President, Republicans will...work to target the wasteful and non-stimulative spending House Democrats are pushing for in their version of the stimulus package.

This is the third time we have met with President Obama and we appreciate his openness to Republican solutions. Unfortunately, Congressional Democrats have not shown the same willingness for bipartisan compromise – and that is reflected in their bill. As currently written, the Congressional Democrats' plan will do very little for small businesses and is unlikely to help working families struggling today.

Cantor also referred to the stimulus package as nothing but a "partisan" piece of legislation. At the afternoon press briefing at the White House, I asked Gibbs if such tough talk about the bill was inconsistent with the celebration of cordiality that was occurring on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue? And did Cantor's remarks signal that, regardless of the kind words about Obama's tone, ultimately the president can only win passage of the package in a partisan fight? In response, Gibbs dismissed Cantor's attempt to denigrate the bill, saying, this was merely "the opinion of one of 535 members of Congress who has decided not to support the bill." In other words, the White House did not fire back.

See the GOP's balancing act? Obama, good; House Democrats, bad. But Obama wants the House bill to pass; the legislation is essentially his package. Still, the Republicans insist on tagging it as the initiative of the House Democrats. They are triangulating. Or trying to do so.

Their calculation is obvious. They cannot take on Obama. So they are endeavoring to discredit the stimulus bill by tying it to those ol' spend-and-spend Democrats. Their hope is that they can win political points by blasting supposedly profligate Dems while speaking cordially of the ever-popular new president. But the problem (for them) is that the Dems and Obama are united in supporting this stimulus package. There's not enough distance between them for the in-the-minority Republicans to exploit. In the end, the Republicans' choice will be to yield to the force of Obama or to be recorded as having voted against a stimulus package when the economy was cratering. Branding the stimulus legislation a House Democratic concoction won't provide them much cover for voting nay. At this tough moment for the Republicans, using the House Democrats as a punching bag may feel good. But their actual opponent in the ring is Obama. And their arms are far too short to box with him.

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