CBS’s Norah O’Donnell talked with Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama, in a much-discussed interview that aired over the weekend, and much of the Q&A focused on one familiar thesis. Here, for example, was the first question, on the subject of Judge Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination.
“Valerie, this is probably one of the last big fights of the president’s term in office. And he can’t even get Senate Republicans to give him a hearing. Most Republicans won’t even meet with Judge Garland. Does that say something about President Obama’s inability to reach across the aisle? To have friends on the other side?”
When Jarrett explained that Senate Republicans’ handling of the Garland nomination has more to do with politics than personal relationships, O’Donnell was unmoved. “But in two terms, seven years, why hasn’t the president been able to find a Republican that he can call up and say, ‘Help me out on this’?” the reporter asked. “Does he have any Republican friends?”
As Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum noted, the interview just kept going along these lines, with O’Donnell asking nine questions in a row – literally, nine – about whether the president is sufficiently friendly with congressional Republicans. “Isn’t politics about schmoozing?” she asked. “And isn’t politics about friendship?”
If all of this sounds at all familiar, it’s because pundits and other political observers, eager to blame the president for Beltway dysfunction, have been pushing the “schmoozing” thesis for years. If only Obama were willing to become pals with GOP lawmakers, the argument goes, Americans would finally see bipartisan policymaking and Washington function as it should.
When it comes to the Garland nomination, the idea that schmoozing could possibly make a difference is genuinely bizarre. “Help me out on this?” Seriously? Republicans would be amenable to replacing Scalia with a center-left judge if Obama and Mitch McConnell were buddies? It’s laughable on its face.
But the broader problem is the degree to which the Beltway media takes the entire thesis seriously – and applies it broadly. The argument reflects a dramatic misunderstanding of how contemporary politics works, and it’s long past time for its proponents to recognize its spectacular flaws.
Maybe it’d be helpful to do this in explainer style.
Who actually believes the “schmooze” thesis?
A few too many people who should know better. Among its proponents are the New York Times’ David Brooks, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and even author Jon Meacham.
Given what we’ve seen in recent years, why would anyone believe this?
A few reasons, actually. First, the thesis makes it easier to embrace the “both sides are always to blame” argument that much of the media also refuses to let go of. To recognize the limits of schmoozing is to acknowledge the GOP’s role in the breakdown of federal policymaking. Holding Republicans responsible, just because the facts point in that direction, is something many observers just aren’t comfortable with.
Second, the schmoozing thesis over-simplifies complex issues in a way that’s incorrect but easy to digest. Because policymaking is difficult, and often requires a detailed understanding of substance, it’s just easier to suggest the president go golfing with those who hold him and his agenda in contempt.
And third, the push for more schmoozing allows the media to overlook the radicalization of Republican politics and treat the GOP as if it were a normal, responsible party, open to constructive policymaking – if only that rascally Obama were more committed to making pals.
Do Republicans think the thesis has merit?
Actually, no, they think it’s ridiculous, too. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was asked about this a year ago and he said the entire issue is a silly media creation because friendships have “no effect on policy.” The GOP leader explained at the time, “The reason we haven’t done more things together is because 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.”
OK, so schmoozing doesn’t make a difference in practice. But shouldn’t the president have at least tried to establish social connections with Republican lawmakers?
He has tried. I’m reminded of an anecdote from 2014 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.
What’s more, Vice President Biden is, in fact, personal friends with many leading members of Congress in both parties. Has this swayed a single Republican vote over the last seven years? Not that I can tell.
Maybe the schmoozing thesis used to have merit?
Maybe. 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 still an assumption that Obama can get his way with Congress if only he engaged like this more – which might make more sense if those norms weren’t a thing of the past.
Is there any harm in the media believing a thesis that’s obviously wrong?
I believe there is. The schmoozing thesis creates a misguided set of priorities: members of Congress who refuse to consider compromise, and who reject the very idea of cooperative policymaking, can act with impunity, knowing that the media won’t hold them responsible, preferring instead to blame the president for not making the White House the Friendliest Place on Earth.
As regular readers know, 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, fully 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 it’s not.