Negotiating With Republicans ? Negotiating With Tea Partiers

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Megan McArdle was pretty unimpressed with President Obama’s press conference following the Democrats’ midterm defeat. “No one reasonable expected the president to grovel,” she says, but surely he could have adopted a more conciliatory tone?

Most notably, of course, he said he would take executive action on immigration by year’s end unless Republicans passed a bill. It’s certainly a bold negotiating tactic: You can do what I want, or I’ll go ahead and do what I want anyway. This is how you “negotiate” with a seven-year old, not a Senate Majority Leader.

I’m not sure that isn’t what Obama thinks he’s doing…But Mitch McConnell is not a seven year old…McConnell is not the proverbial Tea Party extremist who won’t negotiate; he’s an establishment guy, known as a strategist and a tactician, not an ideologue (which is why the Tea Party isn’t that fond of him). In short, he’s someone who can make deals. Responding to McConnell’s rather gracious remarks about finding common goals by announcing that you know what the American public wants, and you’re going to give it to them no matter what their elected representatives say, seems curiously brash. It might chill the atmosphere today when he sits down with congressional leaders.

 I wonder if Obama even knows how to negotiate with Republicans…

I’m not here to defend Obama’s negotiating record. I’d rate it higher than McArdle, probably, but it’s obviously not one of Obama’s strong suits. Still, she’s rather pointedly ignoring the elephant in the room here.

As near as I can tell, Obama has regularly demonstrated the ability to negotiate with Mitch McConnell. Not perfectly, and not without plenty of hiccups, but they can do business when the incentives are strong enough. In fact, they did do business on immigration reform. A year ago the Senate passed a comprehensive bill 68-32. Here’s what Obama said about McConnell on Wednesday:

My interactions with Mitch McConnell, he has always been very straightforward with me. To his credit, he has never made a promise that he couldn’t deliver. And he knows the legislative process well. He obviously knows his caucus well—he has always given me, I think, realistic assessments of what he can get through his caucus and what he can’t. And so I think we can have a productive relationship.

The unnamed elephant in the room, obviously, is John Boehner and the tea party caucus in the House. Boehner has repeatedly shown that he can’t control his own caucus and can’t deliver a deal of any sort. That’s not because either Obama or Boehner are incompetent negotiators, it’s because the tea partiers are flatly unwilling to compromise in any remotely constructive way. So when Obama adopts a combative tone on immigration, it’s aimed at Boehner, who really does have the miserable job of trying to ride herd on a bunch of erratic and willful seven-year-olds—as he himself has admitted from time to time.

Does Obama know how to negotiate with Republicans? Sure. Does he know how to negotiate with tea party extremists? Hard to say. But then again, even John Boehner hasn’t figured out how to do that. Perhaps Obama’s playground style hit-them-over-the-head approach is about as good as it gets.

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