Ever since the November election, the conventional wisdom of the political world has been that the Republican Party has made itself irrelevant. President Obama seemed to agree with this point of view and has acted as if his re-election meant that the opposition should just shut up. That attempt to bully the GOP into inaction–if not silence–seemed to be working well during the fiscal cliff crisis when the president forced the House Republican caucus to give in on tax increases. However, the notion that the presidential election was a signal for the GOP to abandon its principles and simply knuckle under to the White House’s demands is not holding up as well as it was only a few weeks ago.
The president’s hard line on taxes helped ensure that the sequester budget cuts would go into effect. He was sure that a public backlash against the GOP would soon force them to their knees. To that end, he and members of the Cabinet launched a campaign not only claiming the cuts would grievously affect the lives of ordinary Americans but also blaming an idea that was hatched in the White House on Republicans. Yet with the Democrats’ statements looking like a case of crying wolf, the pressure that was supposedly going to bring Republicans to their knees is proving to be a figment of the imagination of both Obama and his media cheerleaders. The GOP is standing its ground and it is the president’s polling numbers rather than theirs that are sinking.
It is in that context that the president’s latest tactic for dealing with Republicans needs to be understood. Last night’s dinner with a dozen Republican senators at a fancy Washington venue and today’s lunch with Representative Paul Ryan suggest the White House is waving the white flag on its assumption that it can bulldoze Congress. After more than four years, the president is finally learning that if he wants to get something done, relying on demagoguery alone is a formula for failure.
No one should mistake this long put-off outreach to the other side of the aisle as a sign that the correlation of forces in Washington does not favor the president and the Democrats. Control of both the White House and the Senate gives them the preponderance of power and responsibility. But just as it is impossible for Republicans to govern the country from the House of Representatives, so, too, is it impossible for President Obama to act as if he can merely give orders to his opponents. But the shift in White House tactics shows that the GOP isn’t nearly as weak or powerless as many have assumed it to be.
It’s not clear that any amount of haute cuisine consumed at the same table by both Democrats and Republicans will ensure compromise on the sequester, let alone a grand bargain on the tax reform. But whether or not these Republicans succumb to the president’s dubious charms it is still a healthy sign for both sides of this standoff to understand that they must work with each other. Much of the media has promoted the idea that it is only the Republicans who are motivated by ideology. But the president’s liberal beliefs about soaking the rich and expanding government power are just as much of a factor as any of the Tea Party’s principles. The two sides may never bridge the gap between their positions, but if the president has stopped pretending that he needn’t negotiate in good faith then perhaps we are taking a step toward ending the dysfunctional dispute that has brought Washington to a standstill.