It’s a fact of contemporary domestic politics that many in Washington resist, but there’s a limit to the power of presidential schmoozing.
The President’s failure to build friendships with lawmakers has damaged his chances of finding bipartisan support for legislation, a senator from his own party said Sunday. “It’s just hard to say no to a friend,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“When you build that relationship and that friendship, you’re looking for ways to try to work things out and find a compromise and, you know, that friendship means an awful lot. When you don’t build those personal relationships, it’s pretty easy for a person to say, well, let me talk about it, you know, and not really make, you know, that extra effort.”
I wish this were true, because it would suggest the underlying problem would be fairly easy to solve. If Manchin were right, and President Obama’s “personal relationships” with lawmakers could lead to more responsible governing, a concerted effort could be made to turn the White House into The Friendliest Place on Earth.
Regrettably, though, Manchin’s remedy is deeply flawed.
Let’s put aside, at least for now, the fact that Obama has gone further than any modern president in bringing members of the opposing party into his cabinet and incorporating ideas from the opposing party’s agenda into his own policy plans – only to find that Republicans oppose the very ideas they used to support once they learn the president agrees with them.
Let’s instead focus on this notion of “building personal relationships.” I’m reminded of an anecdote from a year ago, when Obama invited several GOP lawmakers to the White House for a private screening with the stars of the movie “Lincoln.” The president extended the invitation in secret, so congressional Republicans wouldn’t face any lobbying to turn Obama down.
How many of the invited Republicans accepted the invitation? None.
The Beltway seems to accept as fact the notion that an aloof president has made no effort to cultivate friendships with members of Congress, but reality points in a very different direction. It’s not just movie nights, either – 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.
When it comes to “building personal relationships,” we’ve seen the effort. It just doesn’t seem to have paid any dividends.
And why not? Because the importance of presidential schmoozing has been wildly exaggerated, based on an antiquated, romanticized vision. As we’ve discussed before, there have been times at which lawmakers were on the fence before a big vote, and a president could gently apply pressure with a White House dinner invitation and an after-meal chat on the Truman balcony. For those who believe these traditional norms still apply, there’s an assumption that Obama can get his way with Congress if only he engaged more.
But in 2013, those norms have been thrown out the window.
If lack of schmoozing isn’t the problem, what is? As we’ve discussed many times, traditional governing dynamics are largely impossible given that the Republican Party has reached an ideological extreme unseen in modern American history. It’s a quantifiable observation, not a subjective one.
The result is a situation in which GOP lawmakers refuse to compromise or accept concessions, partly due to partisan rigidity, partly out of fear of a primary challenge, and most of the time, both.
Indeed, the parties sharply disagree with one another – there is no modern precedent for partisan polarization as intense as today’s status quo – and presidential outreach won’t change that. Congressional Republicans tend to fundamentally reject just about everything the White House wants, believes, and perceives as true. Presidential friendships change nothing.
Let’s return to the thesis presented last year by Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein: “[W]e have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.”
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.
The notion that schmoozing will lead to progress rests upon the assumption that congressional Republicans are responsible officials, willing to negotiate and work in good faith, and prepared to find common ground with Obama. All they need is some face-time and presidential hand-holding. Once they can get along on a personal level, a constructive process will follow.
It’s a pleasant enough fantasy, and I wish it were true, but everything we’ve seen over the last four years points in the opposite direction.