In the Arena

Don’t Trust, But Try to Reconcile

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In the history of the Obama Administration, Judd Gregg’s decision to pull out of the Commerce job will seem a pinprick. After all, how important is Commerce? Gregg himself voted to shutter the place–which was probably an early sign that he wasn’t the right guy for the job. But some pinpricks are also wake-up calls, and there are at least two lessons to be learned from this embarrassmeent.

The first, obviously, is that vetting at the cabinet level has to be done with greater care than Obama’s folks have been doing it. Then again, we already knew that, post Richardson, Daschle et al–which makes the rush to name Gregg, not knowing his position on the census and other issues, all the more foolish. 

The second, and more important, lesson has to do with bipartisanship. Obama should now understand that the Republicans are not reliable partners–at least, not for the moment. Most are stuck in the contentious past, rutted in Reaganism, intent on taking a Hooverist course on the economy (although there remains cause for optimism on foreign policy). The President’s default position, after the stimulus fight and the Gregg fiasco, should be to appoint Democrats to significant domestic policy positions–the notion of making a public show of bipartisanship, by reaching across the aisle to someone like Senator Gregg, gives the opposition too much credibility and leverage. Which doesn’t mean that Obama shouldn’t remain as conciliatory, and open to constructive Republican ideas, as he has been. There are potential long-term benefits from such openness (and short-term benefit as well, since the public clearly believes that Obama has been more reasonable than the Republicans).

Actually, there’s a strong resemblance between Obama’s domestic dilemmas and the dreadful situation he faces in the Middle East. (Although, admittedly, this view may be influenced by the fact that I’m writing this from Amman, Jordan). In both cases, there is little chance of immediate success–and there is only a slim, long-term hope of progress…but it’s important to keep the door open to that possibility. For example, if the stimulus and bank bailout succeed in reviving the economy, Republicans may be less adamant in their opposition to other Obama initiatives. If corporate America decides that a new, national health insurance plan is a necessity, you may see some Republicans open to change (remember, there are roughly as many Republican co-sponsors as Democrats to Senator Ron Wyden’s universal health proposal, which would remove the corporate health care burden).

In the Middle East, there is zero chance of a deal right now, given the rightward tilt of Israeli politics and the fury over Gaza on the Palestinian side. But there is a need for a patient but intensive U.S. presence–in the form of special envoy, George Mitchell–if for no other reason than to try to keep things from getting worse and to keep a channel of communication open among all parties (which, I believe, is good reason for the U.S. to begin informal, unofficial conversations with Hamas). Perhaps, sometime in the next few years, a few bridges can be built–in the meantime, the U.S. should stand as a guarantor of humane treatment for those innocent Palestinians who have been caught in the crossfire, and a strong voice in opposition to the extremists on both sides.

This should come naturally to Obama; his gut instinct is toward reconciliation. In time, there will be areas of common interest with Republicans on domestic issues. In time, a consistent, conciliatory U.S. presence may prove a buffer against further damage in the Middle East. But, after the initial votes on the stimulus bill and Judd Gregg’s about-face (plus the recent Israeli elections, for that matter, and the continuing, violent intransigence of Hamas), Obama should have no illusions about the good faith of his opponents, at home or abroad.