This is why Obama’s having dinner with Republicans

March 7, 2013

(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

NBC News grabs a key detail from the dinner President Obama held with 12 Senate Republicans last night:

It was serious. It was respectful. And it was informative. (In fact, one senator told us that he learned, for the first time, the actual cuts that the president has put on the table. Leadership hadn’t shared that list with them before).

The number of Republicans who don't know what the White House is actually offering is stunning. Last week I wrote about a Republican legislator who didn't know Obama had publicly said he'd be willing to move to chained-CPI.

Would it matter, one reporter asked the veteran legislator, if the president were to put chained-CPI — a policy that reconfigures the way the government measures inflation and thus slows the growth of Social Security benefits — on the table?

“Absolutely,” the legislator said. “That’s serious.”

Another reporter jumped in. “But it is on the table! They tell us three times a day that they want to do chained-CPI.”

“Who wants to do it?” said the legislator.

“The president,” replied the reporter.

“I’d love to see it,” laughed the legislator.

The rules of that meeting prevent me from saying which legislator this was. But suffice to say that it's not a legislator who you'd expect to be fuzzy on the details of the White House's offer.

The White House's much-discussed "charm offensive" is also an information offensive. A lot of congressional Republicans have an idea of who Obama is and what he's willing to do that's quite distant from who Obama thinks he is and what he's said he's willing to do. And the Obama they believe they're negotiating with and arguing with is a highly partisan, extremely unreasonable figure -- a figure whose actions and positions justify the GOP's radical intransigence. If the White House is going to be able to get anything done, it needs to close the gap between the Republican Party's imaginary Obama and the actual Obama.

That's not to say that closing that gap will unlock a grand bargain. It likely won't. But it's a necessary precondition to unlocking a bargain. The Republican leadership is ultimately responsive to its members. If the members don't want a deal with the president, then no matter how many cuts Obama offers Boehner, Boehner won't be able to take the deal. And right now, Boehner's members really dislike President Obama -- at least, they really dislike their version of President Obama.

Even if the odds of the charm-and-information offensive working are slim, they're better than the odds of the campaign offensive working. Mitt Romney's comments on Fox News Sunday were perceptive on this point:

What we've seen is a -- the president out campaigning to the American people, doing rallies around the country, flying around the country and berating Republicans and blaming and pointing.

Now, what does that do?

That causes the Republicans to retrench and then put up a wall and to fight back. It's a very natural human emotion.

The president polarizes. That's particularly true when he's flying around the country hammering the opposition. And in a divided government, polarizing issues isn't a path to solving them.

I'm something of a fatalist about American politics. I believe that most of what happens is the product of larger structural forces. That's particularly true for the disagreements between the two parties right now, which have much less to do with the personalities of John Boehner and Barack Obama than with the polarization of American politics. If Republicans, for reasons of politics of policy, don't want a deal, then there won't be a deal. In that world, whatever Obama offers won't be good enough.

But even if the political system is breaking down, the two sides still have to come to work each day and do their jobs. If Obama offers Republicans a fair deal, makes sure the GOP's rank-and-file knows what's in that deal, and tries to build the relationships necessary for Republicans to trust that he'll actually make the deal, the likeliest outcome is probably still "no deal." The GOP's tax orthodoxy remains too strong, and the fear of conservative primary challenges too fresh, for a bit of outreach to wildly change the odds. But at least the president will have done everything he can, and everyone -- including many Republicans -- will know it.

Further reading:

- Why did it take Obama so long to start schmoozing?

- What we have here is a failure of communication.

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Neil Irwin · March 7, 2013