The final question at yesterday's White House press conference asked President Obama to respond to the "truism" that he doesn't "socialize enough."
Obama said he gets along well on a personal level with his rivals, including House Speaker John Boehner, but, "I think that really what's gone on in terms of some of the paralysis here in Washington, or difficulties in negotiations, just have to do with some very stark differences in terms of policy, some very sharp differences in terms of where we stand on issues."
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank isn't buying it.
It's tempting to wonder whether Obama could achieve more if he could establish personal connections with Republicans on Capitol Hill. [...]
"I like a good party," the president informed her after attesting to his "friendly guy" status. "Really what's gone on in terms of some of the paralysis here in Washington, or difficulties in negotiations, just have to do with some very stark differences in terms of policy."
That may be true, but until recent years, sharp disagreements were smoothed by personal ties.
Yes, and until recent years, we had two major, mainstream political parties, both of which had fringe elements, but neither of which had been radicalized.
And then things changed, at which point the efficacy of "smoothing sharp disagreements" through "personal ties" ended.
I liked Kevin Drum's take on this.
I continue to wonder what it will take to put a stake through the heart of this hoary Beltway meme. It's true that Obama isn't the schmooziest president in history, but how much evidence do you need to convince yourself that schmooziness simply isn't the problem here? ... Over the last four years, one thing has become crystal clear: the mere fact that Obama supports something almost guarantees united Republican opposition. Schmoozing doesn't matter. Golf dates don't matter. Invites to the White House bowling alley don't matter. Milbank implicitly admits as much, and yet he's still "tempted" to think that Obama could smooth things over if only he'd hoist a few more beers with Eric Cantor. After all, that kind of thing used to work.
This is magical thinking. The reason it doesn't work anymore isn't because Obama is insular. It doesn't work because the Republican Party has become a party of zealots. What does it take for DC columnists to finally admit that?
That last question need not be rhetorical. Over the last year or so, Ron Fournier, Jon Meacham, David Brooks, and Bob Woodward have all made the same argument: if Obama was better at "schmoozing," the breakdown in Washington policymaking would be less severe. Now, Milbank has joined the club.
The establishment can keep repeating the argument, but it won't improve with repetition.
As reader F.B. recently reminded me, the congressional GOP "has transformed itself from a loosely disciplined congressional party, to an almost lock-step parliamentary party. Add the effects of gerrymandering, subtract the lubrication of earmarks, and we end up with the present gridlock."
I know we just discussed this in detail last week, but it's worth reemphasizing that interpersonal outreach doesn't work because Republicans have reached an ideological extreme unseen in modern American history. It's a quantifiable observation, not a subjective one. Even if GOP policymakers were inclined to work with Obama, they realize that they'd be punished soon after by a primary challenge -- and they know this to be true because it's happened more than a few times in recent years (look up names like Crist, Specter, Bennett, Lugar, etc.).
Let's return to the thesis presented earlier this year by Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein: "[W]e have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party."
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges.
"Both sides do it" or "There is plenty of blame to go around" are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.
"Until recent years, sharp disagreements were smoothed by personal ties"? Perhaps, but until recent years, presidents didn't have to deal with an entire political party that, statistically speaking, is the most ideologically extreme since the dawn of the modern American party system.
Obama has frequently adopted GOP measures as his own, in the hopes of advancing bipartisanship, only to find Republicans opposing their own proposals. Indeed, just last week, the president nominated a Republican for a top post in his cabinet, and the fiercest opposition is coming from -- you guessed it -- the GOP.
This isn't the kind of problem that can be remedied with backslapping and friendly chats.
As I've argued before, 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, and 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 everything we've seen over the last four years points to the limits of schmoozing. GOP leaders respond to unyielding primary voters, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh, not interpersonal outreach from a president they've tried to undermine at every turn.