Why Our Last Best Chance at Bipartisanship Just Died

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 11 2013 10:19 AM

Winter Is Coming

Why the poisonous combination of Benghazi and the IRS audits of conservative groups will make it impossible for Republicans to work with this president.

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the Affordable Care Act during an East Room event May 10, 2013 at the White House in Washington, DC. President Obama spoke on impacts of the act on health, lives and pocketbooks of women and their families.
President Obama's road to working productively with Republicans just got a lot harder

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In the past couple weeks, in interviews with House and Senate staffers for the Republican leadership, there has been a depressing message: Nothing is going to get done for the next four years. Again and again, the same mantra could be heard. Partisanship and election jockeying for 2014 and 2016 is going to keep everything locked up.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Watching the live feed from the White House on Friday it became hard to argue otherwise. President Obama held an event with mothers defending the Affordable Care Act, the start of a monthslong effort to protect his signature achievement, which Republicans have promised to fight all the way to the 2014 elections and beyond. Then, shortly thereafter, White House press secretary Jay Carney jumped between answering questions about the administration’s response to the attacks in Benghazi to the Internal Revenue Service targeting the Tea Party and other conservative political groups for audits.

It’s going to take some time to get to the bottom of these controversies, but we can conclude the pessimists are probably right. Nothing is going to get done in this siege environment.

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That has long been the state of play in Washington for many observers. Still, there were a few politicians cupping their hands around the flame of bipartisanship. The president was one. He took two Republican senators golfing this week, the latest in a string of efforts to fashion some kind of a budget deal. GOP senators on the receiving end of that charm were also working with the White House to reach a deal.

This week, I talked to Sen. Lamar Alexander, one of the senators the president invited to dinner last month. He testified to the president’s good faith on the budget. He thought President Obama was making an honest effort to achieve a grand bargain. He not only said that the president was sincere but that his chief of staff Denis McDonough was working with Republicans like no Obama envoy before him.

The substantive differences between the president and Republicans on the budget may be insurmountable, but now it seems like even if the pipe dream of a substantive budget agreement could be reached it wouldn’t be enough. Even if Republican senators can engage in a trust-building exercise with the White House, how can they convince their constituents that the president is offering them a fair deal on the budget? A poisoned well is now roiling. Any Republican who tries to convince their constituents about a deal will now likely get funny looks. Their constituents would wonder why they were engaged in negotiations with an administration that has told evolving stories about its response to the attack in Benghazi and that houses an IRS targeting conservative groups.

These twin controversies will spur more congressional hearings. That, in turn, means months more of disclosures, rabbit holes, and partisan attacks. For many liberals, this is the obvious point of the politically motivated Benghazi inquiries: to pin the president down and leave him ineffective. Perhaps it was always likely that something would blow the long-shot budget negotiations off course, but the continued effort by the president and a handful of Republican senators suggested at least a glimmer of opportunity. The light appears to have gone out.

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