Bipartisanship Could Help Victorious Democrats

Americans went to the polls Tuesday to decide which party they wanted to run the country, and they chose the Democrats.

Now the Democrats have their own choice to make: What kind of ruling party do they want to be?

In a history-making night, President-elect Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats won with sufficiently large numbers that they enjoy what appears, on the surface at least, to be a luxury. Their margins of victory were big enough — in the race for control of the Senate and House as well as the White House — that they could claim a mandate to govern on their terms. Not since Bill Clinton won in 1992 has a party emerged from an election with such a firm grasp on power.

Yet what seems a luxury also may be simply a temptation to trouble. Though Democrats now are in a position to steamroll their policies into place without much regard to the Republican minority, both history and the national mood suggest a bit of bipartisanship would be wise.

For President-elect Obama, a man who appears to have both a sense of history and a feel for the psyche of the nation around him, this question of governing style represents his first test as the nation’s leader. As the nation’s first African-American leader, he already is a historic figure. Now he is about to begin an equally extraordinary transition to power, made so by both the magnitude of the problems the country faces and the nature of the man Americans have chosen to address them.

The problems simply won’t allow a leisurely transfer of control. Two live wars are under way, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and multibillion-dollar decisions await on the details of the rescue of financial firms. Bush administration officials make it clear in private conversations that they want to involve incoming officials on those matters right away,

At the same time, the unusual character of the president-elect also ensures that the transition will be watched with unusual intensity. Sen. Obama will come to office with a large vote of confidence at the ballot box, yet also bearing a short résumé that leaves a large number of Americans unconvinced of his qualifications for the office he’s now destined to assume.

As a result, the style with which he starts to address the challenges in the weeks ahead will be as important as any specific moves he makes. All that Obama rhetoric from the campaign trail about reaching across the aisle and moving past Washington’s sterile partisan warfare — indeed, Sen. Obama’s very portrayal of himself as a new and different kind of national leader — will be put to the test immediately.

Meeting the test will be harder than it may sound. Some Democrats, seeing the margins of victory they have rolled up, doubtless now will start pushing for new economic policies, new financial regulatory structures, new government plans for health care and a new strategy for dealing with the lingering war in Iraq, built solely on Democratic terms.

Yet history provides warning signs in front of such thinking. Simply consider the paths of the last two newly elected presidents, Bill Clinton of the Democrats and George W. Bush of the Republicans.

Mr. Clinton won in 1992 with friendly Democratic majorities in Congress strikingly similar to those Sen. Obama will enjoy: 258 House seats and 57 Senate seats. He did, in fact, reach across the aisle to Republicans initially to balance the budget and promote free trade — policies that had durable and lasting support precisely because they had a bipartisan foundation.

But he then fell into the trap of leaning on the power of Democratic votes, and ignoring the animosity of minority Republicans, to try to push through the single biggest domestic effort of his first term, a wholesale remaking of the nation’s health-care system. It was an overreach, which Republicans drove home by reminding voters that Mr. Clinton had won office with just 43% of the popular vote, thanks to the votes siphoned away by independent candidate Ross Perot.

The backlash was instant, and painful. Democrats lost 54 House seats and 10 Senate seats in 1994, just two years after Mr. Clinton took office.

Then, in 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency while losing the popular vote, and he came into office with a small majority of fellow Republicans in the House and a Senate deadlocked at 50 seats for each party.

Nevertheless, the president, because of a combination of legislative strategy on his part and lack of cooperation on the Democrats’ part, pushed his signature economic platform through on largely party-line votes. His tax cuts were enacted, and remain in place, but they never won the kind of durable support that would have come along with a more bipartisan underpinning.

More than that, except for education, bipartisanship never really materialized on other important domestic and economic policies, and the tax cuts now are likely to be rolled back.

Democrats don’t need Republican help now, but there is little doubt that policies with broader support are more durable. A bit of bipartisanship in his hour of victory might help Barack Obama and the Democrats in the hours of need that surely will come down the road.

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