CNBC’s John Harwood sat down yesterday with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the two covered quite a bit of ground. Indeed, the Republican leader arguably made some news by noting that his work in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is largely about helping President Obama’s successor – whom McConnell obviously hopes is a Republican.
But there was one other exchange that jumped out at me.
HARWOOD: President Obama’s gotten some grief for not being more sociable with members of Congress. Had he had a bourbon with you once or 10 times, would that make any difference to how you guys actually relate?MCCONNELL: No. I think it’s all good stuff for you all to write. But it has no effect on policy. The reason we haven’t done more things together is ‘cause we don’t agree on much. It’s nice to have social occasions, but we don’t all hate each other anyway. It wouldn’t make any difference. Look, it’s a business.
This is clearly not what many political observers want to hear. A few years ago, David Brooks argued that President Obama and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would better understand each other’s agenda if only the president invited the far-right congressman over for lunch. Schmoozing, Brooks argued, would work wonders.
Soon after, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) advised, “The president’s got to start inviting people over for dinner. He’s got to play golf with them. He has to pick up the phone and call and say, ‘I know we disagree on this, but I just want to say – I heard it was your wife’s birthday or your kid just got into college.’ He has to go build friendships.”
A wide variety of Beltway media types have also argued repeatedly that Obama’s reluctance to schmooze is an impediment to policymaking progress.
But McConnell’s comments to John Harwood, satisfying or not, are 100% accurate. Outsiders might like the idea of bipartisan deals being struck by rival policymakers once they get to know each other, but “the reason we haven’t done more things together is ‘cause we don’t agree on much. It’s nice to have social occasions, but … it wouldn’t make any difference.”
I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with Mitch McConnell more.
Of course, I continue to think assertions that Obama’s unsocial is overblown. I’m reminded of an anecdote from last year when Obama invited several congressional Republicans to the White House for a private screening with the stars of the movie “Lincoln.” The president extended the invitation in secret, so the GOP lawmakers wouldn’t face any pressure from the right to turn Obama down.
It didn’t matter. None of the Republicans accepted the invitation to go and watch the movie at the White House.
Indeed, as we’ve discussed before, Obama has hosted casual “get-to-know-you” gatherings; he’s taken Republicans out to dinner on his dime; he’s taken House Speaker Boehner out golfing; and he’s held Super Bowl and March Madness parties at the White House for lawmakers.
But none of this has ever made any difference whatsoever.
This continues to be relevant even now. I’ve heard some chatter that yesterday’s vote on “fast-track” might have gone better for the White House if only the president finessed the process more effectively, reaching out to potential allies with greater diplomacy, and calling rivals by their first name.
But again, personal interactions aren’t determinative in situations like these. There’s a serious policy dispute among officials who are divided by genuine disagreement over substantive issues.
On this, McConnell is right: friendly outreach “has no effect on policy.”