Fineman: Partisanship, D.C.'s Default Setting

Only two months ago, Sen. Judd Gregg embodied a new spirit of bipartisanship in Washington. To the surprise of everyone (and the dismay of his Republican colleagues), he cut a deal to join Barack Obama's cabinet. The president, Gregg said last week, assured him he wanted a "contrarian" at his table— an antitax, anti-big-government Yankee skinflint in a sea of statist dreamers. Gregg saw himself as an "independent guy" and, at 61, had no real yen to run for re-election in 2010 or to stay in a Senate now firmly in Democratic hands. So he jumped. As he was announced for Commerce secretary, Gregg declared, "This is not a time for partisanship."

Well, as Seth Myers of "Saturday Night Live" would ask, "Really?" Attacked from left and right, burdened by his own second thoughts, Gregg withdrew. When I interviewed him last week, his usual wintry outlook had turned as grim as a gale on Mount Washington. The president and his Democratic allies, Gregg says, wrote a hyperpartisan budget that could bankrupt the nation, weaken the dollar and (thanks to certain parliamentary tactics being employed) undermine the deliberative role of the Senate. "We're heading into very dangerous waters," he says.

In the capital, history becomes ancient in a hurry. The Brigadoon of bipartisanship was a fleeting fantasy. Bereft of new ideas, reduced in numbers, the GOP instinct was to recoil. President Obama was faced with a choice between two types of the "change" he promised: he could try to establish a soothing, we're-all-in-this-together tone or he could try to become Ronald Reagan, the author of a tectonic shift in the philosophy and arithmetic of government. Obama chose the latter. No surprise there—Obama's advisers know the window for legislative shock and awe doesn't stay open long (Reagan's didn't). And under new, bizarre budget rules, you have to get your blank checks signed early to enact real policy changes later.

Truth is, Washington's default setting is partisan division, and moments of genuine good will are rare. Last week was not one of them: the Senate and House gave initial approval to Obama's $3.5 trillion budget without a single Republican vote. There's some risk in this for Obama. According to the new NEWSWEEK Poll, his job-approval number is a healthy 61 percent. Voters like him, but are growing wary of bailouts and deficits. Gregg, who says he still admires the president, warns him not to push too hard: "You can win the battle here in Washington and lose it on Main Street. You just can't do big issues this way."

Gregg insists there was no one revelation that made him reverse course. Conservatives attacked him as a turncoat; liberals and minority groups attacked his traditionalist view on how to conduct the census (a process run by the department he would have headed). The White House didn't exactly seem to have his back. "I think that episode might have convinced him that he'd never be on the inside," says Sen. John Kyl of Arizona. "That's certainly what I told him all along." Gregg says he was "naive" to think he could be part of the team: "It wouldn't have been fair to the president, and it wouldn't have been fair to me."

Last week, as the budget debate droned on, Gregg was hunkered down at his (Daniel Webster's) desk on the Senate floor. The Democrats' budget contained "staggering numbers," he said, "and represents an extraordinary move of our government to the left." He sounded worried—but also relieved he wasn't a member of the president's team. And, in any case, he has a house near a golf course back home in New Hampshire.