As conference panels go, this one could reasonably have taken up the wholeday: What’s Wrong With Washington?
Ah, where to begin…
As it happens, moderator Walter Isaacson, Aspen Institute chief and long-time watcher at the Washington Zoo, opened by lobbing former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe , now of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a big ‘ol softball: “Are things today worse than they have ever been?”
Snowe’s unshocking response: “Absolutely.”
And from there the panel was off, with Snowe, Isaacson, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, and former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell lamenting the shutdown insanity and, more generally, the sorry and dysfunctional state of politics today.
Panelists had no trouble coming up with a laundry list of factors contributing to the problem: redistricting/gerrymandering, the influence of outside interest groups, the lack of comity between the parties, an unwillingness to tackle big problems, the primary process, the breakdown of the legislative process, and, of course, President Obama’s inability to schmooze.
As a big proponent of this last point, Bob Woodward pointed to a 2011 sit-down between Obama and John Boehener, held on the lovely patio outside the Oval Office. POTUS primly ordered iced tea and chewed his Nicorette gum while the chain-smoking Speaker drank wine. “That sends a subtle message,” insisted Woodward.
Former Senator Mitchell was unconvinced: “Anybody who suggests that schmoozing does the job need only look at [the congressional struggle over] the Clinton economic plan.” Despite Clinton being “the king of schmoozing,” Mitchell reminded the audience, “Not one single Republican wound up voting for that economic plan.” And while courting opposition leaders may help a bit aroundthe edges, he added, “It’s kind of insulting to Senators or Congress members to suggest that he or she would cast a vote” based on the level of stroking received by POTUS.
This, in turn, prompted a back-and-forth between Woodward and Mitchell over the fine distinctions between schmoozing and communicating.
Though entertaining enough, this exchange captured what was depressing about the discussion as a whole: Clearly, no one has a clue as to how to fix things. Or rather, people have plenty of clues, vanishingly few of which seem likely to go anywhere anytime soon.
Snowe, for instance, spoke passionately about the toxic influence of gerrymandering and the extremists of each party taking over the primary system and the way that, thanks in large part to the oversized electoral role of monied interest groups post-Citizens United, “the outside is driving the agenda!” When asked what would fix things, she called on the American public to get engaged in the electoral process and take back the system from the fringerswho have turned compromise and consensus into dirty words.Yeah. Good luck with that.
Mitchell was, if anything, even less encouraging. Asked by Isaacson if by some chance an agreement on this latest budget battle “could break the fever” for at least a couple of years, he said: “Don’t we all wish that to be the case, and don’t we all know that it’s not going to be the case.”
That said, it was also Mitchell who, drawing on his past experience in negotiating a peace agreement in Ireland, offered a piece of advice to Obama: No matter how ugly things get, keep in mind that Boehner has to be able to come out of these negotiations with “a fig leaf.” Yes, the Speaker’s conference has painted him into a corner where it will be tough for him to save face, but you have to help bail him out. “It’s not going to be a major concession. But there has to be something so that the guy doesn’t come out of that door totally defeated.”
A basic tenet of Negotiating 101? Maybe. But these days, Washington seems increasingly unable to manage the basics.