It took almost a month, but Washington’s political leaders finally want you to know they got the message: They will work together to get things done.
This is a small step, for sure, but it was by no means a certain one after the midterm election blowout on Nov. 2. The next day, Republican leaders in the House and the Senate came out swinging. “I think the group that should hopefully get the message out of yesterday’s elections is our friends on the other side of the aisle,” said Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican. President Obama responded with a veiled threat of his own. “The question is going to be do we all come to the table with an open mind and say to ourselves, what do we think is actually going to make a difference for the American people?” he said, sounding a clear note of doubt about Republican intentions.
On Tuesday, after more than two hours of meetings between Obama and the Republican and Democratic leaders, including 35 minutes of private discussions without staff, the tone was far less tense. The jockeying for position seemed to have given way to the first glimmers of collaboration. Republican leaders publically announced that they welcomed the opportunity to meet more often with Obama. The President admitted that he should have done better in his first two years to reach out to Republicans, and announced his intentions to invite Republicans up to Camp David. Afterwards, Obama made a point of avoiding the classic post-meeting spin.
“A lot of times, coming out of these meetings, both sides claim they want to work together but try to paint the opponent as unyielding and unwilling to cooperate,” Obama said, apparently departing from his prepared remarks. “Both sides come to the table. They read their talking points. Then they head out to the microphones, trying to win the news cycle instead of solving problems, and it becomes just another move in an old Washington game. But I think there was recognition today that that’s a game that we can’t afford; not in these times. And in a private meeting that I had without staff, you know, without betraying any confidences, I was pleased to see several of my friends in the room say, ‘Let’s try not to duplicate that. Let’s not try to work the Washington spin cycle to suggest that somehow the other side’s not being cooperative.’”
On Capitol Hill, the incoming Speaker John Boehner appeared with McConnell and the incoming majority whip Eric Cantor before reporters after the meeting, and they all resisted their normal habit of throwing rhetorical daggers down Pennsylvania Avenue. “There’s a reason why we have Democrats and Republicans. We believe in different things about the appropriate role of the federal government,” said Boehner. “But having said that, the more time that we do spend together, we can find the common ground because the American people expect us to come here and work on their behalf.”
The immediate outcome of the meeting was tangible: A negotiating plan to work out a resolution on extending tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of the year. Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner and Office of Management and Budget chief Jack Lew will join four appointed negotiators from the House and the Senate, including two Republicans. The meetings could begin as early as Tuesday. The likely outcome of this meeting will be a temporary extension of all the tax cuts, though the terms have not yet been worked out.
The great political question of the next year is whether this stated desire for cooperation evolves into some semblance of trust, or whether it is simply a performance piece in the political contest both parties are playing to establish themselves as the best representatives of the American people. As Mark McKinnon, a former advisor to President Bush and John McCain, said Monday night on MSNBC, “The fact that it’s a big story that the President is meeting with members of the opposition party is shocking to regular Americans. This shouldn’t be news.”
But alas it is. What Americans found out today is that there is a glimmer of hope that one day, once again, it will not be news any more.