THE BLOG

It's Time for Obama's Bipartisan Moment

Sep 16, 2013 | Updated Nov 16, 2013

President Barack Obama never has appeared more unsteady and uncertain at home and abroad, which is why this is the perfect moment for the Republican Party's congressional leaders to reach across the aisle in a genuinely bipartisan gesture.

In the bitterly partisan atmosphere that clings to Washington like smog, that suggestion may seem at best counter-intuitive and, more likely, as ridiculously naïve. The president and his aides, after all, are so badly beaten up and withdrawn after recent events, that they've cancelled the annual congressional picnic. National polls show nearly across-the-board declines in public confidence in Democratic leadership. In the usual partisan calculus of win-and-loss this would seem the moment of the chief executive's maximum weakness and, therefore, of Republican advantage. Consider this, though:

As the Syrian-Middle Eastern-Iranian crisis deepens and becomes more complex, the only people who will benefit from a weakened American presidency are Bashar al Assad and Vladimir Putin. It's possible the as-yet-unconcluded talks over a UN resolution on destroying Syria's chemical weapons will bog down or fail. President Obama will have to come back to Congress for its approval of air strikes against the Damascus regime. Serious-minded lawmakers in both parties will differ on whether that's a wise course and the Administration may well suffer still another failure on that count. No one, however, can seriously argue that we should stand by forever and do nothing about Assad's crimes against humanity.

That's why the Republican leaders in both chambers ought to be moving ahead with bipartisan proposals to deliver large-scale humanitarian aid to the estimated 7 million Syrian refugees who have fled their country or been internally displaced. At the same time, the United States ought to be pressing ahead with appropriate weapons shipments to the non-Jihadi Syrian insurgents and with providing American military personnel to train secular and moderate fighters in their use. Leaving the latter program in the hands of the CIA just won't accomplish what needs to done. Military analysts say a more robust training effort is required, and that's what we ought to provide.

At the same time, the House and Senate Republicans need to give up on the chimeras of either repealing health care reform or making it a legislative dead letter by cutting off the funds to roll it out. Most important, proposals to accomplish this by playing chicken with raising the debt ceiling ought to be shelved for what they are -- dangerous and irresponsible. Let's get real: President Obama never is going to sign legislation that abolishes or cripples a program he regards as the signature achievement in the White House and the corner stone of his historical legacy. Pretending otherwise, is simply a guarantee of gridlock-as-usual.

That's why the GOP leadership should put together a series of proposals that would appeal to flexible Democratic lawmakers -- who have their own doubts about aspects of the health care reform -- and would be designed to correct what Republicans see as the worst flaws in the original legislation. That sort of approach is the beginning of dialogue and negotiation rather than heedless -- and pointless -- confrontation. Equally important, the GOP leadership ought to propose establishing a bipartisan committee of both chambers to monitor the roll-out of health care reform and to write clean-up legislation to fix the problems that inevitably will arise out of so vast and complex a change.

On this, as in other areas, the Republicans need to show that they want to be the party of let's-do-it-right, rather than the party of let's do nothing at all.

A Gallup Poll out Friday found that only 49 percent of Americans now have confidence in their government's ability to manage foreign affairs and just 42 percent believe Washington can handle domestic issues, including the economy.

That lack of trust is corrosive and in nobody's interests. The Republican leadership has the opportunity to help change people's minds by showing it wants to move from confrontation to cooperation.