Harold Hill in The Music Man – and the even-better film version of it – was a charming rogue. But he was a total fraud. He wasn’t Professor Harold Hill, the travelling music instructor, there to organize a River City Boy’s Band. He was there to part the locals from their money – lots of it. Yes, the band instruments and uniforms they ordered, for which they paid him far too much money up front and in full, would arrive, but he’d be long gone before they were the wiser. There would be no music instruction either, because he actually knew nothing about music, which is why he had to get out of town, fast. It was a scam, but one with a happy ending. Marian the Librarian won his heart – he just had to stay in River City – and she had seen through his sleazy devastating charm from the start. Charm is overrated. It may be necessary to successful salesmanship, but it isn’t everything. You have to deliver the goods, as agreed. Talking a good game just doesn’t cut it – although it made for great patter songs and brilliant dialog in that musical. Actually, the whole thing was a cheerful and tune-filled critique of consumer capitalism. There’s a downside to American glad-handing and back-slapping deal-making. The system is rife with charming scam-artists. They are an inevitable byproduct of the system, an unintended consequence perhaps, but always there. The Music Man was the Consumer Protection Bureau musical.
The Consumer Protection Bureau tragedy was from a bit more than a decade earlier, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – all about Willy Loman, the man whose life was falling apart because his whole career in sales was falling apart. He thought it was not only all about being liked, but about being well liked – that’s what made people successful, and he had had a pretty good run. Then the audience got about two hours of overwrought and dismal proof that nothing comes of schmoozing – and if you liked watching a guy who just can’t face the truth, twisting and turning in agony, this was they play for you. Miller hammers it all home without much subtlety – glad-handing and back-slapping deal-making may be the American way, or even the essence of the American character, but there’s something terribly wrong here. We have a culture built on deception and fraud, even if we talk all the time about being the open and happy good guy and having a positive attitude. There’s much to be said for being aloof and thoughtful, and then simply delivering the goods, as agreed. To prove that, Miller then married Marilyn Monroe – thus the aloof and thoughtful guy won THE woman of the age. Quiet competent men all across America smiled. Maybe you didn’t have to be a grinning back-slapping loud guy to succeed in this world after all.
Five years later that marriage was over – but Marilyn Monroe was a troubled woman, so Miller wasn’t the problem, entirely – and the tension still exists. In any endeavor it’s important to get along with others – to listen to them and, if possible, to win them over to your point of view. This may lead to secondary activities, like golfing with the guys or drinks after work. That’s part of laying the groundwork for mutual trust, or at least some ease in communication. Yes, you want to be liked, and if possible, well liked. That makes any joint endeavor easier – but it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that’s all that’s needed to get things done. Quiet competence matters too – doing the right thing, sometimes alone, even if it ticks off all the other folks. Schmoozing is just a tool after all, not an end in itself – but then you can fall into the other trap. You can’t just blow off those whose support you might need. Sometimes you have to be a salesman, even if you hate that sort of thing.
It seems that Barack Obama finally figured that out:
President Obama had a dinner date Wednesday night with a dozen of his worst enemies, thus proving that the governmental stalemate in Washington, D.C., is driving him to unusual acts of political creativity – or desperation.
The president personally picked up the tab for the private dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, and the guests were all Republican senators, including John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), John Hoeven (N.D.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.).
Coming out of the hotel after the two-hour meal, the senators had nothing but nice things to say about the gathering.
Well, yes, Obama picked up the tab, personally – but they all said it was a positive meeting, with discussion of the deficit and budget issues too. Schmoozing helps, as this item, from David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times, goes on to explain:
Personal contact has always been essential to getting things done in Washington and is even more important when governmental power is divided. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had to make deals with a Democratic Congress. In the 1990s Bill Clinton had to work out compromises with a Republican House. Reagan and Clinton were both champion schmoozers. But those were the days when there was still a functioning center in the House and Senate. Now, Democratic and Republican lawmakers are so deeply divided and rigid in their ideology that it often appears they can barely stand to be in the same building, let alone at the same dinner table. In a political system already designed to divide power, the lack of people willing to reach out, give ground and cut deals has meant that Congress and the president have lurched from one confrontation to the next with little useful work getting done.
The idea is that Obama finally woke up:
Criticized for the failure to come up with a budget bargain before automatic across-the-board budget cuts kicked in, Obama said at a recent news conference that he was “not a dictator” and could not just force Congress to do his bidding. If not a dictator, neither has he proved to be a savvy, hands-on politician in the style of Lyndon B. Johnson, Reagan or Clinton. The days when LBJ slapped backs, twisted arms and brokered deals with a few powerful committee chairmen are long gone, of course, and that makes a charm offensive less effective than it once would have been. But nothing else is working – not even taking his case to the people – so Obama is giving charm a try.
And MSNBC’s Chuck Todd notes that this dinner cleared up something else:
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). And the overall suggestion from the dinner was that Obama would have to give cover for any cuts to Medicare, while Republicans would have to pony up additional revenue to get it.
There was something odd hidden in there. These guys didn’t know Obama had put cuts on the table all along? Their leadership didn’t tell them about Chained CPI and all the rest Obama floated, enraging his own base? Don’t these guys watch the news or read a newspaper? Only Fox News says Obama has proposed no cuts at all, even after they air a clip of Obama proposing to cut this or that, and maybe that explains it. See Jonathan Chait’s discussion of Bill O’Reilly screaming at the top of his lungs that Obama has never cut one program or even proposed cutting one damned thing:
Everyone here is playing their appointed role. [Alan] Colmes is pleading with O’Reilly to stop yelling at him and whimpering things like “we’ll just have to disagree.” [Monica] Crowley is affirming O’Reilly’s correctness and cheerfully allowing him to interrupt after a couple of seconds of talking so as not to yammer on in a way that annoys him. And O’Reilly himself, after finally calming down, reaffirms his own white-is-black claim with such conviction that viewers have probably already forgotten that he is feverishly denying something that they witnessed with their own eyes. The segment has achieved such Fox News perfection that it can never be reached again. Roger Ailes should simply loop it endlessly for the rest of time.
The clips Chait provides are priceless, but these things happen. No one was screaming at the dinner in Washington, and the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein thinks he knows why:
It’s a common complaint from both Republican and Democratic legislators that Obama simply doesn’t like talking to them. Conservatives recall that Bill Clinton loved getting their opinion and would listen for as long as they wanted to talk – even while they were impeaching him. I spoke recently with a liberal senator who fondly remembered that former President Bush repeatedly invited him up to the White House even as the senator spent every single day investigating and opposing Bush in the Senate – Obama, he said, has spent less time with him than Bush did.
It would be easy to discount these complaints, but as any reporter who deals often with Congress will tell you, they’re constant, and they come from both sides of the aisle. It’s the same complaint that came from wealthy liberal donors during the election. Obama just doesn’t like the grip-and-grin, small-talk side of politics and political players who are used to receiving that attention end up feeling neglected.
Obama needs to be Willy Loman, but not quite Harold Hill. Schmoozing really is everything, or at least the only useful tool politicians have:
The process that typically produces national politicians selects people who like schmoozing donors and building countless relationships and sending Christmas cards to everyone they’ve ever met and making their colleagues feel loved. But whereas Bush and Clinton and pretty much every other president had lived and excelled in that world for a very long time as a precondition for coming to the White House, Obama’s rise was so swift and unusual that he came to the White House lacking some of the typical traits of national politicians. His trajectory simply selected for different traits – including a deep impatience with the kabuki rituals of Washington politics.
In many ways, that’s why voters like him. But it doesn’t always serve him well with other political elites.
That’s an interesting dichotomy. Voters like quiet competence and politicians hate that sort of thing, and can destroy Obama for it.
Maybe so, but Heather Parton sees it this way:
To be honest, I think that’s something of a convenient conceit. President Obama was a skilled and experienced politician long before he won the office. And nobody wins it without political skills. And make no mistake, what Ezra is describing are political skills, not personality traits.
But whatever. The more important aspect of this is that Obama ran for office as the guy who could transcend party divisions, heal the nation and change Washington. A whole lot of people believed that (maybe even the Republicans on some primitive level – for about a month.) But what, exactly, was supposed to be the mechanism for this? If he is the guy Ezra describes, then he obviously believed it would happen by the sheer force of his charismatic persona.
This isn’t a new subject here by any means. I’ve written about it many times. Mostly I’ve said (generously I think) that the administration believed their own hype which is to say they thought the mere fact of winning the election would bring the Republicans around.
Now she agrees with David Atkins:
President Obama is a man of many admirable qualities and strengths. But he has a character flaw worthy of Shakespearean tragedy that is perfectly illustrated in this little snippet. That flaw is the desire common to many tragic anti-heroes imbued with a certain narcissism, to believe that he can do what no others can – in this case, to transcend seemingly impossible political divides by bringing the two parties together to achieve bipartisan policy goals.
No one can do the impossible and Parton adds this:
If what Ezra says is true, Obama evidently believed he could do it without lowering himself to politics! Apparently the idea was that by simply proposing bipartisan solutions to vexing problems, everyone would agree and we’d all check them off our lists until everything was fixed and our terrible political culture was healed. That truly is narcissistic.
I don’t know if it’s the case that he’s not “reached out” enough personally or whether DC crybabies are simply playing for attention. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) I don’t know that any amount of outreach would make a bit of difference. After all, these people are complaining that he isn’t as nice as Bill Clinton was and they impeached Clinton for his trouble. So, I’m not going to assume that any of that is true.
But if Ezra is right and the president really is aloof and hostile to the political process then he was guilty of more magical thinking about “hope and change” than even I previously believed.
She calls this political malpractice – the force of his personality would never be enough to change a political culture even if it was a nice try. Brian Beutler reports that Obama is still trying:
After wining and dining a group of GOP senators whom he hopes to recruit for a budget a “grand bargain,” President Obama turned right around and invited Paul Ryan over to the White House for lunch.
GOP senators, sure. A lot of them have expressed a willingness to trade new taxes for entitlement cuts, including Lindsey Graham, who organized the affair. But where does Paul Ryan, the grand bargain’s very own Grim Reaper, fit into the picture?
A source tells Glenn Thrush that “by speaking directly with Ryan, Obama is hoping to enlist a powerful ally in convincing leadership to abandon its insistence on subjecting all future measures on the debt, deficit, taxes and entitlement reform to ‘regular order,’ the tortuous committee process dominated by party conservatives, according to a person close to the process.”
That sounds technical and boring – but if Obama’s charm offensive actually works it’ll prove crucial.
Here’s the detail:
After the fiscal cliff fight, Boehner promised his members he wouldn’t conduct private legislative negotiations with Obama, and would move all fiscal policy – indeed all House business – through the arduous regular order Thrush describes… What his source is saying, I think, is that Boehner’s promise could become a big problem for Obama in the coming weeks or months. If Obama can somehow convince a dozen Senate Republicans to vote for a bill that closes tax loopholes and cuts Medicare/Social Security, he’ll need the House to work around the blue slip issue and bring it to the floor – which would mean asking Boehner to abandon regular order.
Don’t worry about the arcane details, as the big picture matters more:
It sounds like Obama’s trying to lay the groundwork for that request by feeling out Paul Ryan. If Ryan’s open to circumventing regular order on the condition that Obama cuts a deal with GOP senators, then maybe this hypothetical plan won’t hit a brick wall in Boehner’s House.
Obama’s not only schmoozing a bit, he’s neutralizing the Speaker of the House. Obama is one sneaky fellow – unless he’s just schmoozing.
As Arthur Miller tried to show, it may not matter. In the New York Times, Jeremy Peters says that Obama’s friendly dinner with all those Republican senators may have changed nothing at all:
Lawmakers in both parties say the president’s efforts may make him a few new friends, but he is not going to change ideologies. Others privately complained that convening such a high-profile meeting seemed like an effort to distract from his failure to help forge a solution to avert the automatic budget cuts that went into effect last week.
Asked Thursday morning about the president’s new social schedule, Speaker John A. Boehner chuckled before saying he hoped the talks would produce real compromise… “I think it’s a sign, a hopeful sign. And I’m hopeful that something will come out of it. But if the president continues to insist on tax hikes, I don’t think we can get very far.”
Those who have studied the relationship between presidents and Congress doubt seriously whether Mr. Obama’s latest outreach will yield much. “It’s a rather shallow notion,” said George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A & M University and an expert who has written extensively on presidential power. “You’re not going to get committed conservatives to change their long-held ideological commitments because you play a round of golf or invite them to the White House.”
And the Los Angeles Times was not all that positive about the meeting with Paul Ryan:
On Thursday, Obama’s charm offensive set the table for one of the hardest nuts to crack – the top Republican budget expert, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who as the GOP vice presidential candidate tried to evict Obama from the executive mansion where he was invited to lunch.
Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, sat down with Obama for lentil soup and sea bass in a meeting that Ryan described as a “frank” and the White House called “constructive.”
Kevin Drum knows what those words mean:
We all know what “frank and constructive” means, right? Usually it means that no fistfights broke out, but only barely.
Drum comes down on the side of Arthur Miller:
We’ve been through a dotcom bubble, and then a housing bubble. Right now, I feel like we’re in a presidential schmoozing bubble. I don’t think there’s much question that Obama could stand to improve his social skills, just as there’s no question that he might do himself some good by making sure his positions – and his concessions – are better understood in the halls of Congress. But the boomlet of excitement we’re seeing over a few dinners and lunch meetings with the opposition is hard to fathom. Maybe we’re all so desperate for something – anything – to convince us that our political system isn’t completely broken that we’re willing to latch on to even a routine bit of socializing as a lifeline of hope. Unfortunately, I suspect this says more about how miserable we all feel than it does about the possibility of Republicans ever agreeing to higher taxes.
Miller did write a tragedy after all. “The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.”
Believe that and you’ll find yourself in a tragedy – unless you go into politics, which may be the same thing. At least Harold Hill knew that being liked was only one more tool you could use to grab all you could from the rubes.