When Obama played golf with Boehner a few years ago, he was criticized for only playing with him once. But it turns out that wasn't his fault. Boehner told the Naples group they had a "nice" game but he declined a couple of subsequent invitations in order to avoid irritating his "band of renegades" (his description of some of his fellow Republicans). The exchange with Obama went like this, according to Boehner: "You think it would be too much trouble if we played golf again?" "Yes, Mr. President, I think it would be." To the audience, he added, "You just can't believe the grief I got."
It's not exactly a secret that President Obama and congressional Republicans fail to see eye to eye, but for several years, a variety of Beltway pundits have argued that the president is to blame. Obama hasn't forged personal relationships with his GOP foes, the argument goes, which makes cooperation impossible.
If only the president "schmoozed" more, the pundits have said, he'd have more legislative successes.
I hope these same observers take note of an interesting piece U.S. News published yesterday, highlighting remarks former House Speaker John Boehner made in Florida earlier this month. The Ohio Republican said the political climate in D.C. is so toxic, he sometimes felt the need to "sneak into the White House to see the president."
Think about that. The president, trying to cultivate a relationship with the then-House leader, played a round of golf, which couldn't be repeated because House Republicans were outraged.
It's one thing for GOP lawmakers to resist policy compromises with a White House they hold in contempt, but these guys didn't even want Boehner socializing with Obama.
To be sure, part of the problem in a case like this relates to Boehner's weakness: a stronger Speaker would have simply told his members it's just golf and they shouldn't freak out with such ease.
But there's a larger point to the story that the pro-schmooze pundits should pause to appreciate.
As regular readers probably know, I've argued more than once that the chatter about Obama keeping lawmakers at arms' length is overblown. There's a great anecdote from last year in which the president invited several congressional Republicans to the White House for a private screening with the stars of the movie “Lincoln.” Obama extended the invitation in secret, so the GOP lawmakers wouldn’t face any pressure from the right to stay away.
It didn’t matter. None of the Republicans accepted the invitation to go and watch the movie at the White House.
This wasn't an isolated incident. Obama has hosted casual “get-to-know-you” gatherings; he’s taken Republicans out to dinner on his dime; 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.
I realize this isn't what many political observers want to hear. A few years ago, David Brooks argued that Obama and Paul Ryan 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 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.”
It's a lovely idea, belied by reality.