The Washington Post

How bypassing GOP leadership could break the impasse

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., left, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., second left, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., second right, and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., right, leave after a private dinner with President Barack Obama at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Much is being made of the president’s recent overtures to Republicans on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, Obama had dinner with a dozen GOP senators at the Jefferson Hotel. Thursday, he had lunch with Republican Paul Ryan. And next week, he will head to Capitol Hill for four meetings-one each with Democrats and Republicans in both chambers.

Obama is trying to make nice, extending a hand in an effort to end the partisan gridlock that has repeatedly brought negotiations to the brink. Or at least he’s trying to make it look that way to the public — and Republican lawmakers — fighting his image as the aloof, insular president who shirks from Washington socializing and rarely plays rounds of golf with his opponents.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

But if anything comes of President Obama’s latest outreach (and there is plenty of reason to doubt anything will), his success may have less to do with his turning on the charm and more to do with the folks he’s trying to win over. After years of failed negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, perhaps speaking directly with a broader group of Republicans could help. The more diverse his relationships with his opponents, the more his message may spread, and the more possibilities there are for someone else to help thaw the ice.

Boehner, for his part, told reporters he supports the president’s move, despite being sidestepped. Rather than reaching out through official leadership channels to set up the latest efforts, the president called senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whom he sat between at Wednesday’s dinner. Others in attendance included senators Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

Some of these men are unlikely friends of the president, while others have been among his sharpest critics. One ran against him for president. Two were ringleaders of the Benghazi circus that severely criticized the administration. Another has slammed the president’s “job killing” policies. Getting them on his side is unlikely. But so is advancing an agenda without a large majority in Congress: History shows us that even those presidents thought to have great powers of persuasion, such as Lyndon Johnson, were not as successful when their parties lost seats.

And so, the overtures may go nowhere. Similar efforts in the past were either spurned by Republicans or had little lasting impact. Still, trying to build bridges with the rank-and-file, as well as with unofficial leaders who drive the party’s agenda through their media savvy, could be far more fruitful than trying repeatedly to negotiate with the top. We all know what’s been said, after all, about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

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