WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton has been trying to make a point about Barack Obama that deserves one last careful look before Tuesday’s probably decisive Democratic primaries: If Obama truly intends to unite America across party lines and break the Washington logjam, then why has he shown so little interest or aptitude for the hard work of bipartisan government?
This is the real “where’s the beef?” question about Obama, and it still doesn’t have a good answer. He gives a great speech, and he promises that he can heal the terrible partisan divisions that have enfeebled American politics over the past decade. And this is a message of hope that the country clearly wants to hear.
But can he do it? The record is mixed, but it’s fair to say that Obama has not shown much willingness to take risks or make enemies to try to restore a working center in Washington. Clinton, for all her reputation as a divisive figure, has a much stronger record of bipartisan achievement. And the likely Republican nominee, John McCain, has a better record still.
Obama’s argument is that he can mobilize a new coalition that will embrace his proclamation that “yes, we can” break out of the straitjacket. But for voters to feel confident that he can achieve this transformation should he become president, they would need evidence that he has fought and won similar battles in the past. The record here, to put it mildly, is thin.
What I hear from politicians who have worked with Obama, both in Illinois state politics and here in Washington, gives me pause. They describe someone with an extraordinary ability to work across racial lines, but not someone who has earned any profiles in courage for standing up to special interests or divisive party activists. Indeed, the trait people remember best about Obama, in addition to his intellect, is his ambition.
Obama worked on some bipartisan issues, such as a state version of the earned-income tax credit, after he was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996. But he also gained a reputation for skipping tough votes. The most famous example was a key gun-control vote that he missed in December 1999 because he was vacationing in Hawaii. The Chicago Tribune blasted him and several other vote-skippers as “gutless.” One Chicago pol says that “the myth developed that when there was a tough vote, he was gone.”
Obama’s brash self-confidence led him into his only big political blunder. Prodded by the Daley machine, he challenged Bobby Rush, an incumbent Democratic congressman and former Black Panther, in 2000. Rush pounded Obama by more than 2-1in the primary. “He was blinded by his ambition,” Rush told The New York Times last year.
Obama has been running for president almost since he arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2005, so his Senate colleagues say it’s hard to evaluate his record. But what stands out in his brief Senate career is his liberal voting record, not a history of fighting across party lines to get legislation passed. He wasn’t part of the 2005 “Gang of 14” bipartisan coalition that sought to break the logjam on judicial nominations, but neither were Clinton or other prominent Democrats. He did support the bipartisan effort to get an immigration bill last year, winning a plaudit from McCain. But he didn’t work closely with the White House, as did Sen. Edward Kennedy.
The Obama campaign sent me an eight-page summary of his “bipartisan accomplishments,” and it includes some encouraging examples of working across the aisle on issues such as nuclear proliferation, energy, veterans affairs, budget earmarks and ethics reforms. So the cupboard isn’t entirely bare. It’s just that, unlike McCain, Obama bears no obvious political scars for fighting bipartisan battles that were unpopular with his party’s base.
“The authentic Barack Obama? We just don’t know. The level of uncertainty is too high,” one Democratic senator told me last week. He noted that Obama hasn’t been involved in any “transformative battles” where he might anger any of the party’s interest groups. “If his voting record in the past is the real Barack Obama, then there isn’t going to be any bipartisanship,” this senator cautioned.
Voting for a candidate is always an act of faith — a belief that the politician will win a mandate that allows him to transcend his own past limitations and those of his party. Ronald Reagan taught the country something about the ability of a world-class communicator to create such a new political space that defies the previous categories.
No one who has watched Obama’s sweep toward the nomination would say it’s impossible that he can be the great uniter. I just wish we had more evidence.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.