Congressional leaders met with President Barack Obama on Friday at the White House, where they took the next steps in the dance of power that will shape the history of the next two years.
The stakes are high, and recent history gives us reason to expect the worst. The Great Debt Ceiling Debacle of 2011 may be nothing once we’ve seen the Great Leap off the Fiscal Cliff.
The fiscal cliff crisis will be followed by more tests of whether the combatants in Washington can “get to yes.” Why can’t these guys get along, and what can be done about it?
Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian, says Obama shouldn’t just invite Congress members for negotiations. He should have them over for drinks.
“He should use that White House as a political asset more than he did in the first term,” she said on “Meet The Press.” “He should have a cocktail party there every night for members of Congress.”
Invite the families over too, suggests Mika Brzezinski, a child herself when her dad, Zbigniew Brzezinski, served as Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. It’s harder to get real nasty with someone who was so nice to your wife and kids.
Washington might also take a lesson from Beacon Hill. As Bruce Mohl and Sam Obar recall in a recent issue of CommonWealth magazine, Massachusetts governors and leaders of both parties in both houses of the Legislature have been meeting nearly every Monday afternoon for more than 20 years.
The tradition started in 1991, when Republican Bill Weld became governor and began meeting Mondays with House Speaker Charles Flaherty and Senate President William Bulger, both Democrats. Soon they began inviting the Republican minority leaders to the gatherings, which alternated between the offices of the three leaders.
The point was to develop a personal rapport as much as push a specific agenda. Those who were there in the early years recall Weld, Bulger and, later, Speaker Tom Birmingham, who considered themselves classical scholars, breaking into Latin and Greek. They brought obscure words into the discussions, challenging each other to work the words into post-meeting statements to the press.
The meetings got more business-like under subsequent governors Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick, but the tradition continued, and continued to be valuable. In the State House, as in Washington, factions can get insular, policy disagreements can turn personal, and politics forces individuals into teams. Informal, off-the-record discussions can illuminate possible areas of agreement on policies and help key players understand each other’s problems and priorities.
And, as Flaherty told CommonWealth, “You’re less likely to stab someone in the back if you’re going to be having tea and cookies with them next Monday.”
For a long time, Washington insiders have traced the nastiness in government, in part, to changes in the capital lifestyle. In the early ‘90s, Newt Gingrich advised GOP House members to leave their families at home and spend as little time in Washington as possible. The spouses and children of Republicans and Democrats stopped socializing. Congress members of differing parties stopped seeing each other outside the office.
It’s easier to demonize the other guy if you’ve never had a face-to-face conversation with him.
It was clear in Obama’s first term that personal relationships aren’t his strong suit. As Bob Woodward recounts in his most recent book, when the 2010 election made John Boehner House Speaker, the traditional call from the president congratulating him was delayed because no one in the White House had Boehner’s phone number. In the midst of the debt ceiling standoff, a golf game between Obama and Boehner was treated like a summit conference between the leaders of hostile nations.
Last week’s election changed the Washington dynamic in many ways, strengthening Obama’s hand and exposing fractures on the Republican side that Democrats may be able to exploit.
But Obama has read enough presidential biographies to understand that, at key moments, personal relationships can mean the difference between keeping the engines of government running or watching it jump off the tracks. If he wants to have more luck with the next Congress than he had with the last, he ought to start inviting more folks over to the house for a good time.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.