Obama needs to talk to GOP leaders -- soon
It's understandable why President Barack Obama wouldn't want to play golf with Rush Limbaugh, but he needs to start talking to Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.
Elected on a promise to end toxic partisanship, Obama has not had any one-on-one contact with Republican congressional leaders during his presidency and has failed to develop personal relationships with them.
As Roll Call's Emily Pierce reported earlier this month, "The last time Obama and McConnell spoke privately, one-on-one, was prior to Obama's January 2009 inauguration."
Obama did call the Senate minority leader briefly to advise him he was nominating Solicitor General Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court--"something we already knew," the Kentucky Republican's spokesman said.
House Minority Leader Boehner's office confirmed that the Ohio Republican has had no contact with Obama, either, outside of group sessions such as White House leadership meetings.
It's not clear that personal contact would have resulted in any Republican support for his policies -- there's been precious little, of course -- but it might have, assuming conversations led to compromise.
Arguably, Obama hasn't needed bipartisanship to get his programs through Congress. Democrats had a 70-seat margin in the House and, until recently, 60 votes in the Senate.
But every indication is that Republicans will be stronger in the 112th Congress that takes office in January, so Obama will either be forced to deal with the GOP leadership if he wants to get anything done in the next two years, or be thwarted.
And as primary elections so far indicate, the GOP center of gravity will be further right than it is now, and the Democrats' will be further left -- with stalemate in the offing unless Obama can break it.
One top Obama aide told me that the White House considers McConnell to be a "hard-line partisan," implying that there was no dealing with him -- but the Kentuckian is a far cry from the Limbaugh-Tea Party school of conservatism that's now ascendant.
According to accounts of a forthcoming book, Zev Chafets' "Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One," when a high-ranking Democratic operative conveyed the author's proposal of a golf game, Obama replied: "He can play with himself."
McConnell has criticized Obama's policies as "big government takeovers" and has used his considerable political and parliamentary skill to unify his GOP colleagues and obstruct Democratic legislation. But he's never -- like Limbaugh -- likened Obama to Hitler and Stalin.
The No. 3 Senate GOP leader, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, says that Obama's lack of contact with Republicans constitutes a tale of "missed opportunities."
He cites a Jan. 23, 2009, speech to the National Press Club in which McConnell characterized Obama's "promise of post-partisanship" as opening "the possibility of a new era of cooperation."
McConnell blamed both parties for lack of comity, lamented that "vulgar insults hurled from overcaffeinated activists can pass for legitimate political discourse" and offered to help Obama reform Social Security, lower the national debt and increase energy independence.
In the speech, McConnell also recalled times when "working on a bipartisan basis to achieve big things for the nation didn't mean exposing oneself to attack ads by one's own colleagues," and when "real friendships across party lines were common," citing examples such as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and former Senate GOP leader Bob Dole of Kansas.
Did McConnell mean it? Obama should have tested him out--face to face -- but never did.
Alexander told me that, had Obama and McConnell had a personal relationship, they might have worked out a way to get 60 votes to establish a bipartisan debt commission and even compromise on health care.
"It would have been really hard, but (Obama) would have had to sit down with Mitch McConnell at the beginning of the process and said, 'OK, Mitch, what can we do here?'"
Instead, Alexander said, Democrats opted for the "shooting-gallery approach" to GOP senators, "trying to pick off one here and one there. ... To negotiate with Republicans, you've got to start with the leader.
"My conclusion," Alexander said, "is that (Obama) either doesn't know how to be bipartisan or he doesn't want to -- or some of both. He spent so little time as a senator, maybe he does not understand this place.
"And then, he had 60 votes and his left wing was saying, 'We won the election. We'll write the laws.' And he let them. But that won't work next year."
That's for sure. A White House aide said Democrats would be "lucky" to limit their House losses to 30.
And on Tuesday, McConnell was humiliated in his home state for being "too Washington," his choice for the Senate (also Dick Cheney's and right-wing former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's) trounced by Tea Party favorite Rand Paul.
Republicans could have five, six or eight more Senate votes in the next Congress -- but, as developments in Kentucky, Florida and Utah suggest -- they may be more loyal to super-partisan Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., than to McConnell.
In Utah, Republicans rejected Sen. Bob Bennett because he cooperated with a Democrat, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, on model health care legislation and because he voted for President George W. Bush's rescue package that saved the U.S. economy from catastrophe.
One sad possibility is that, had Obama and McConnell developed a strong relationship -- say, like Lyndon Johnson's with Senate GOP leader Everett Dirksen (Ill.) or Ronald Reagan with Speaker Tip O'Neill, D-Mass. -- McConnell might be even weaker politically than he is now.
Or, as Alexander suggests, they might have been able to produce bipartisan results that would have countered the discontent raging in the country.
But what now? The best suggestion I've heard -- from Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, the Republican Senate nominee -- is that Obama invite McConnell and Boehner to Camp David for a weekend.
Given the level of paranoia rampant among the tea party set, maybe the confab had best be secret.
But, if they want to get anything done, they'd better talk. Otherwise, they will spend the next two years -- maybe four, maybe six -- in nonstop combat, and the nation will fall deeper into debt and oil dependency, its standard of living and world standing jeopardized.
Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.