The state of the wide gulf between the parties

Jan 27 2011 - 11:49am

Before President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, many Senate and House members vowed to mute traditional partisan divisions by sitting with ideological foes to show their shared goal of confronting big national problems.

Indeed, Tuesday night's television shots displayed many politically odd couples: among Texans, Senate Republican Campaign chair John Cornyn beside his Democratic counterpart, Washington Sen. Patty Murray; ranking Commerce Committee Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison with Democratic chair John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia.

But Obama noted "what comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow." And the evening's substance -- Obama's address and Republican reactions -- revealed a gulf that will take more than good intentions to bridge.

It was evident in the contrast between the subjects, priorities and language of Obama and his two Republican responders, Reps. Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann.

Each spoke to "swing voters" with a message tailored for partisan advantage. Obama directed a broad, future-oriented agenda at the independents and moderates who elected him in 2008. Ryan and Bachmann focused narrower anti-spending appeals at the smaller group that gave Republicans 2010 midterm victories.

And both sides avoided the hard choices needed to overcome the massive federal budget deficit.

Still, a neophyte viewer easily could have discerned their partisan identities.

Obama stressed the need to surmount a changing world's challenges through greater investments on the kind of research that produced the Internet, expanded education efforts and infrastructure improvements.

Though designed to justify some additional spending, he didn't persuade many Republicans. "Watch your wallets," tweeted freshman Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., according C-Span's website.

Indeed, only after discussing these traditionally Democratic issues did Obama address such fiscal subjects as tax simplification and spending cuts. To his credit, he noted that any significant deficit reduction requires the kinds of defense cuts he proposed, eliminating tax preferences like those for the oil industry and higher taxes for the wealthy.

He proposed a five-year domestic spending freeze and vowed to veto bills with earmarks but said, "We have to stop pretending that cutting this kind of spending alone will be enough."

Though avoiding partisan language, the latter comment referenced how Republicans have launched their House takeover with symbolic, minimally significant efforts like reducing congressional spending and eliminating federal funding of presidential campaigns.

Even the much touted GOP pledge to cut $100 billion this year, which Republican leaders have already scaled back, deals only with the domestic discretionary spending that totals less than $500 billion of the $3.5 trillion budget.

While Obama said he was open to fixing flaws in the health care reform act, the Republican speakers denounced it. Ryan blamed it for "accelerating our country toward bankruptcy," though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says it would cut the deficit.

The Wisconsin congressman undercut dire warnings about the long-term dangers of overspending with a stunning lack of specifics on where to cut.

But both sides avoided the toughest long-term fiscal problem, burgeoning costs for retirement and such health programs as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Obama called for "a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations," avoiding what to do -- lest he offend party liberals -- and focusing on things not to do, like cutting future benefits or "subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market."

Ryan's Roadmap for America's Future would do that by authorizing younger Americans to put some retirement income in non-governmental accounts and replace Medicare with a voucher plan, proposals so controversial he didn't mention them Tuesday night.

The mixed seating made it harder to judge the response from the applause. But the contrasting reactions of smiling, often applauding Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and less enthusiastic Republican Speaker John Boehner made clear that good fellowship won't quickly produce bipartisan agreement.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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