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September 21, 2017

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Angry public rhetoric belies collegial meetings behind closed doors in D.C.


J. Scott Applewhite / AP

President Barack Obama, escorted by House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, right, waves as he arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2013, for closed-door talks with House Speaker John Boehner and the House Republican Conference to discuss the budget.

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During his meetings with rank-and-file members of Congress last week, one Republican senator had a complaint for President Barack Obama that had less to do with his policies than his presentation.

“The rhetoric that we hear in the media and in the press ... ought to be more reflective of the conversation we’re having today,” Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas recalled someone from his caucus saying to Obama — though he wouldn’t say who. “If there’s no difference in the way that that occurs, our ability to come together disappears.”

Harsh rhetoric flies across the Capitol and along Pennsylvania Avenue in this city where Republicans and Democrats are seemingly always at each other’s throats.

In the past year, lawmakers have publicly described political opponents and their priorities as “stupid,” “extreme” and “pathetic” — among other choice words.

But in private, lawmakers’ exchanges with Obama, such as those last week, are “polite,” “cordial” and even “respectful.”

So are the fireworks all for show? Sort of.

“There is a real ideological divide between the parties,” said David Damore, political scientist at UNLV. “But there’s this notion that in the media, centrism doesn’t sell; conflict does. ... The politicians, or at least their press people, are wise to that.”

Hence the Capitol scene last week: As Obama broke bread with Democratic lawmakers behind closed doors Tuesday, House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan railed against the evils of the president’s health care law. When Obama sat down with Republicans in similar fashion a few days later, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid was ripping the GOP for “Republican March madness” at a news conference.

There is often a division of labor in the art of keeping up political appearances.

Reid and Ryan appointed themselves flamethrowers for their respective parties long ago: Reid provides cover for Obama’s softer style by keeping up a barrage of attacks on his political opponents while Ryan’s namesake budget is the lightning rod for much of the Democratic dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, theoretically giving House Speaker John Boehner room to make a deal.

But displays of collegiality on the Hill are so new — and Washington’s political and spin cycles are so fused — that the principal negotiators have yet to fully seize a moment to meet in the middle.

On Wednesday, just minutes after emerging from friendly discussions with Obama, Boehner stonily dismissed Obama’s overtures as lacking in substance. Later that day, Obama lost some good will with the GOP when he summarized the Republican bargaining position to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos as “gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid.”

Learned distrust, it seems, was not dispelled with a few nice lunches.

And there’s an incentive to stay on the offensive. Republicans see an opportunity to push for more in Obama’s second term than they were able to secure in the first.

“Obama, he doesn’t have to run for election, so he’s got very little to lose,” Damore said.

And Democrats, fearing Obama may not hold the party line, have to defend themselves against Republicans.

“If he’s going to get anything, he’s going to have to meet them in the middle,” Damore said. “He’s playing for history now.”

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