President Obama's rocky start surprised left and right because both assumed that the new president's gift for rhetoric would be matched by a natural talent for coalition-building.
That latter talent may yet emerge, but outsourcing the stimulus package to the House Democrats doomed the "bipartisanship" meme from the start. Speaker Pelosi is many things, but bipartisan is most assuredly not one of them. Her members have a decade-and-a-half of pent-up demands, and the stimulus bill was a convenient bus onto which many of them could be loaded. She is, after all, running a coalition built on promises, so starting up the conveyor belt was not only a natural thing for a leader from the Left to do, it was a necessity.
If the president had a chief of staff not so thoroughly formed by his time in the Clinton White House and the House of Representatives, that staffer might have argued for a much greater show of independence and a much more genuine outreach to Republicans. But Rahm Emmanual must remember Bill Clinton's rocky start with Democratic majorities in 1993, and he surely knows what causes the Democratic majority to hang together in the House --he built that majority.
So the new president and his new chief of staff turned the keys to the car over to the Speaker, and then to the Majority Leader Pelosi and then Reid ran over the Republicans, then put it in reverse, backed over them, and then ran over them again.
Except for Senators Collins, Snowe and Specter. But three GOP Senators doesn't make for bipartisanship, and no one is even pretending that it does. Senator Gregg's throwing a flag on Emmanuel's plans for the Census just confirms that what we saw unfold in the first three weeks of the Obama Era is a foreshadowing, not an exception to some rule of centrism.
The GOP should be relieved to be relieved by the president of any obligation to negotiate. He gave them their collective get-out-of-bipartisan-jail card, and it won't expire this side of 2012. Obama had the opportunity to extend his party's reach deep into the center and even into some precincts of the conservative movement, but instead he chose the Way of Rove: Lock down the base.
This isn't a bad thing at all for the general health of American politics, which are divided because the big issues divide. Either a massive expansion of the government will work to increase non-inflationary economic growth, or it won't. We are going to have a very clear test of that over the next two years.