I re-watched New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) re-election victory speech last night, and there was one point he emphasized that’s worth considering in more detail.
“The biggest thing, the biggest thing I’ve learned over the last four years about leadership is that leadership is much less about talking than it is about listening, about bringing people around the table listening to each other, showing them respect, doing what needed to be done to be able to bring people together and to achieve what we needed to achieve to move our state forward.“Now listen, I know that if we can do this in Trenton, New Jersey, maybe the folks in Washington, DC, should tune in their TVs right now to see how it’s done. […]“I know that tonight a dispirited America, angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington looks to New Jersey to say, ‘Is what I think’s happening really happening? Are people really coming together?’”
Obviously, this was intended to be part of Christie’s message in advance of a presidential campaign, and for the media establishment that adores the governor, the rhetoric worked – the usual suspects swooned.
But listening to this, I kept thinking about the success of the provocative strategy implemented by congressional Republicans. As Matt Yglesias put it, “In a way Christie’s success vindicates Boehner/McConnell theory that root-and-branch obstruction is best way to make Obama look bad.”
By all appearances, when President Obama took office, he envisioned a model very similar to the one Christie described. Obama would listen, show people respect, and make every effort to bring people together. The president put Republicans in his cabinet, incorporated Republican ideas into his agenda, and expressed a willingness to compromise on practically everything.
What Obama didn’t anticipate was the ferocity of the Republican opposition. Literally the night of the president’s first inaugural, GOP leaders met and decided on “unyielding opposition” to the White House’s plans. “If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” now-House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said at the time. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”
By 2010, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) freely admitted that his top priority had nothing to do with jobs or the economy: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
It wasn’t hyperbole. Republicans have spent the entirety of Obama’s presidency rejecting the White House’s ideas – even when the president agrees with GOP proposals.
New Jersey offers a look at the opposite: a Republican chief executive reached out to a Democratic legislature, and Dems decided to try cooperating. The legislative majority could have simply blocked the governor at literally every turn and refused to work with him, but New Jersey Democrats preferred governing and cutting deals to obstructionism and gridlock.
And as a result, Christie gets to boast and the media gets to gush.
The point is, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and their allies tried a provocative plan: make the president look bad by refusing to work cooperatively. Obama vowed to try to end Washington dysfunction and fierce partisan strife, and Republicans could prove him wrong through a radical experiment: simply refuse to govern or compromise.
Let this be a lesson to lawmakers everywhere: you, too, can make a chief executive look ineffective and overly partisan by slapping away outstretched hands.