The theory is that if Democrats make a show out of reaching out to Republicans, but Republicans slap Democrats down every time and obstruct for the sake of obstructing, then Democrats will gain politically.
The reality is that Republicans gain in the polls if Democrats fail to pass legislation that improves people's lives, no matter the political theater of obstruction.
But let's take a slightly different angle on the charge that Obama is "naïve" about power and partisanship. Suppose you were as non-naïve about it as I am -- but your job wasn't writing about politics, it was running for president? What should you do? In that case, your responsibility is not merely to describe the situation exactly, but to find a way to subvert it. In other words, perhaps we are being too literal in believing that "hope" and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk. The public, and younger voters in particular, seem to want an end to partisanship and conflictual politics, and an administration that came in with that premise (an option not available to Senator Clinton), would have a tremendous advantage, at least for a moment.
Whether it was part of some eleven-dimensional chess plan or not, thirteen months not the Obama administration, this appears to be pretty much what Democrats have done. Democrats have bent over backward to at least try and make it appear as though they are reaching out to Republicans. And, following the script, Republicans have done a good job of obstructing Democrats for the sake of obstructing Democrats.
The problem for Democrats is that their plan resulted in a massive improvement in the Republican electoral situation, rather than improving their own:
Key electoral indicators, Election Day 2008 and now
Over the last fifteen and a half months, Democrats have lost 4-5% in net partisan self-identification, around 9% in the National House ballot, and around 15% in net party favorability. And, Mitch McConnell is still saying Republicans will obstruct legislation that they will ultimately vote for:
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on "Fox News Sunday" that Republicans "may well" support the jobs bill, though that doesn't necessarily mean the GOP will help Democrats on Monday's procedural vote.
Republicans are paying no political price for their obstruction. Quite to the contrary, they are actually reaping a political reward from it. The Democratic plan of delaying legislation in order to make a big, public show of reaching out to Republicans was a miserable failure.
This is demonstrative not of bad execution of the Democratic plan to reach out to Republicans and make them look like obstructionists, but rather of a faulty theory behind that plan. The problem isn't that Democrats haven't done enough to reach out to Republicans, or to get out the message about Republican obstruction. The problem is that the public doesn't care about political process, which makes attempts to publically reach out to Republicans useless political theater that does nothing except delay important legislation. The public wants their lives to improve, and doesn't care about process stories or the 24-hour news cycle.
Instead of this political obstruction hurting Republicans, it hurt Democrats. And badly. The 74 days that Baucus wasted would have easily been enough to pass health reform before the January 19th special election in Massachusetts. Democrats looked ineffective in passing legislation, and kept an unpopular bill in the headlines for much, much longer than it needed to be.
The reason this didn't hurt Republicans is because the country ultimately does not care about political process. In an open-ended CBS poll taken just before President Obama's inauguration, only 2% of the country cited fixing partisanship as the task they would most like to see President Obama accomplish. Further, that poll is the only time that "partisanship" has ever registered as the top problem facing the country for more than 1% of the population.,
The country doesn't tune into process stories in the news, either. Five years ago, during the ultimate process fight in the Senate--the Republican attempt to get rid of the filibuster--only 34% of the country said they followed the story "very closely" or "somewhat closely." This helps to explain why only 26% of the country knows that it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. Most of the country has no idea why Democrats don't just pass whatever they want.
The problem with the theory of change employed by Democrats, and articulated by Mark Schmidt, is that it assumes everyone in the country is a political junkie familiar with congressional process and glued to the daily news cycle. In realty, the public never lists process issues among the top issues facing the country, and wants the party in charge of the government to help fix (or at least not exacerbate) the problems they face in their everyday lives.
The country never cared about political theater. As such, putting political theater--aka, making a show of reaching out to Republicans because you know they will reject you--at the center of your strategy was bound to fail. All it did was delay, water down, and block important legislation that could have made people's lives better. Had Democrats instead made using whatever political process they could to make people's lives better the center of their strategy, they would be a lot better off politically right now.