To woo your enemy, do not drop an ox in his soup. That isn’t an ancient maxim, but the idea behind it is so self-evident, I don’t need to find Sun Tzu’s version to know it’s true. When you are trying to build trust with someone who does not trust you, don’t give them new reasons not to trust you.
President Obama needs to be reminded of this basic truth. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked him if he was planning to relax after he landed in Israel on Wednesday, Obama replied, “It’s good to get away from Congress.” House Speaker John Boehner told Jake Tapper in an interview, “So much for the charm offensive.”
Oh come on, you’re saying. (And if you’re not, you should be.) How sensitive a spring flower is John Boehner if he bruises this easily? Is this how inconsequential our politics have become that this overheard line requires comment? Yes, this is exactly what we’ve been reduced to and we can all meet for a symposium on how small things have become later this summer. (I’ll bring the microscope!) But if the president wants to get that big deal he’s been talking about, he’s going to have to hold his tongue.
The premise of the president’s recent outreach to Republicans is that he might be able to build connections that would lead to a grand budget bargain. This relationship relies on trust. Republicans must trust that if they take a political risk to support changes in the tax code that would bring in revenue for deficit reduction—which will hurt them with their supporters—the president won’t undermine them further with their voters by making them look like chumps.
This relationship needs to do more than just win their agreement. It needs to be flexible and durable enough to help Republicans build support on their own side. The president’s Republican partners have to make the case for this bargain (still a near-fantasy long shot) to their voters and colleagues who don’t trust the president and who only form their opinions about him by watching television.
The president understands this at some level. During the Bush years, then-Sen. Obama advised the White House that it was hard to work with the administration when Republicans were constantly making Democrats out to be terrorist appeasers. He also knows this because at least two Republican senators he’s trying to work with have told him as much. Remember late last year when a fiscal cliff deal was in sight, and President Obama held a press conference with multiple jabs at Congress? “So … I’m confused,” said a spokesperson for Eric Cantor, “Does POTUS want a deal or not? Because all those jabs at Congress certainly sounded like a smack in the face to me.” That news conference created ill-will that didn’t kill the deal, but it has made working on another one much harder. It’s why lots of Republicans are anticipating he’ll do it again on a big deal now.
The president dined with Republican senators, met with Republicans on the Hill, and placed lots of behind-the-scenes phone calls that we don’t know about. I’ve talked to some of the senators the president has talked to, and they attest to his sincerity. They believe he wants a big deal and this outreach is not some kind of political trick.
At the dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, President Obama said he would create room for a big deal by reducing his attacks on Republicans, which convinced some that he really was on a new course this time around. But two days later, the president undermined his promise. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, he characterized the Republican position as wanting to “gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid.” Republicans involved in the deal-making said, There he goes again. The goodwill was diminished.
Medic! This is hardly a reason to go diving for the iodine and gauze bandages. Politicians regularly say terrible things about each other and then make deals. Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan were often pretty mean in public. Reagan once called O’Neill “a round thing that gobbles up money,” and the house speaker said Reagan was a “cheerleader for selfishness.” But the two men could work together because they had a certain level of trust. In today’s world, this is how a Republican senator can say glowing things about New York Sen. Chuck Schumer. Schumer may regularly demagogue Republicans, but in a deal his word is solid. He can be trusted.
The president has no trust reservoir. But he will need to create one if he’s going to get a deal. So holding his tongue is how he builds that trust. It’s not the only thing he must do, and it may not be enough, but it would make getting a deal easier.
The president’s allies worry that in negotiations with Republicans, Obama will concede to their excessive and ever-shifting demands. If he were to agree to raising the Medicare eligibility age just to get a deal, they argue, that would be bad. Those near retirement would be hurt, and there would be no deficit reduction. The benefits of getting a big deal don’t outweigh those costs. That’s a reasonable argument, but in this case, there is no such cost to the president knocking off the wisecracks about Republicans. He’ll have plenty of time to savage them later if a deal falls through.
It is no doubt hard for the president to lay off a few knocks since he’s taking so many himself. When Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a member of the House Republican leadership, says that the president is spending more time on his NCAA basketball bracket than a budget, that’s a cheap shot. It’s natural for the president to want to swing back. But the route to a deal is not through Kevin McCarthy. He voted against the fiscal cliff deal. The White House theory about how this grand bargain gets done assumes Kevin McCarthy and those like him will probably vote against it. Staying focused on the smaller “common sense caucus” should be possible for Obama and his team. They were the ones who defined the no-drama approach to politics during the 2008 election, showing an ability to ignore the foolishness on cable television and go about their business.
Resisting the urge to strike back is the hard part of schmoozing with the opposition, and that is where LBJ’s talents—which are so often misapplied to the current context—might be instructive. Johnson was a brute and a bully, and he fought like hell for what he wanted. He was also incredibly arrogant. (Why check the Bible, his press secretary Bill Moyers once joked on the LBJ campaign plane, “when we have Himself here with us.”) But when LBJ wanted something as much as Obama wants us to believe he wants a deal, Johnson flattered, sublimated, and diminished himself before whomever he hoped to woo. Sometimes he even gave those senators pointers on how they should boast in public about how they’d bested him.
Perhaps President Obama has done all of this in those private phone calls. He’s definitely endured a lot of lectures from men he would like to tell to get stuffed. But what he does in private only creates some of the room he needs for a deal. Perhaps his opponents will never be satisfied, or they’ll move the goal posts. What? No flowers? But this is the strategy the president has picked. His public remarks are making it harder for the very people he’s trying to convince to work on a big deal, which means he’s not only dropping an ox in their soup but in his own.