The president’s dinner with Senate Republicans, not to mention lunch with Paul Ryan, has prompted mostly complimentary coverage on his efforts to press the “re-set” button with congressional Republicans. Wonkbook even headlined its set of links to that coverage with the I-think-mostly-nonsardonic query “Is Washington suddenly working again?”
In that vein, Ezra Klein rightly points out that “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.” Klein’s recounting of GOP legislators’ outright ignorance of some of the president’s proposed policy concessions (e.g., moving to chained CPI) is intriguing. Can White House press secretary Jay Carney’s speculation regarding “Republican leaders [who] insist the President doesn’t have a plan” be right?—to wit, “perhaps they don’t have the Internet in those offices.”
Overall, though, as Matt Yglesias tweeted – sardonically for sure, this time – “political scientists are going to have a lot of egg on their faces when a single dinner party ends all this polarization.” Indeed so. Obama’s willingness to pick up the tab does mean the event proves a different unlikely thing: that there is such a thing as a free dinner. But as I’ve argued here before (and see George Edwards’ comments along with mine in today’s NYT), the contours of presidential legislative success are set by factors outside the president’s immediate control. Lyndon Johnson is famous for his “treatment” of recalcitrant legislators, mixing substantive argument, pleading, and bullying in rapid-fire fashion:
Yet by the end of his term, as JFK aide Ken O’Donnell later put it in an oral history, Johnson “couldn’t get Mother’s Day through” – that is, he had so little influence that he would have failed to obtain even a congressional resolution saluting our nation’s moms. Why? Johnson’s skill set hadn’t changed. But the makeup of Congress die: in the 1966 midterms, Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate (plus eight governorships for good measure.)
And yet even O’Donnell’s gibe must be modified – in 1968, for instance, Johnson was able to push through the third of his major civil rights laws, the Fair Housing Act. Why? Events again – this time, the legislative window opened by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April of that year.
To be sure, even if charm works only at the margins, should close calls arise, those margins might matter. And as Klein continues, “Even if the odds of the charm-and-information offensive working are slim, they’re better than the odds of the campaign offensive working.” This pivots to another area well-studied in the presidency subfield: political scientists have found little evidence that the “going public” strategy of whipping up public opinion to sway legislative roll calls has worked, at least in a systematic way. Sometimes, as with Ronald Reagan in 1981, the exception seems to prove the rule – but even then, by the time his tax votes came around, Reagan was riding a wave of public adulation following his remarkable recovery from his own would-be assassin’s bullet. There are conditions under which presidents can lead public opinion, Brandon Rottinghaus’s The Provisional Pulpit (p. 9) suggests, for instance “when they continuously push the issue in public, when their approval rating is higher…, while delivering speeches on television from the seat of presidential power, and when the public is persuadable…” But even then, linking shifts in opinion back to changes in the congressional decision making calculus is hardly automatic.