Play to Win, Mr. President
Policy + Politics

Play to Win, Mr. President

Capital Exchange is a new blog featuring debate among some of Washington’s smartest budget and policy experts. –Eric Pianin, Washington Editor and Moderator

There's only one thing the White House has to do in engaging the GOP on health care and jobs: Start using the powers and political tools at its disposal so that Republicans understand that the administration will move ahead without them if they refuse to participate.

In other words, as Lyndon Johnson did so ably, President Obama needs to operate from a position of strength, not weakness.  From making better use of the bully pulpit (does anyone really think the GOP has anyone who can match the president's ability to energize an audience?) to withholding funds from GOP-held districts and states, the administration needs to show that it's willing to play to win.

Republicans showed they understood this principle when they controlled the White House and Congress by completely marginalizing the Democratic minority through presidential recess appointments, spending impoundments, budget reconciliation and favorable rulings from the chair.  They even signaled a willingness to eliminate filibusters and holds on nominations in the Senate – tactics they now use with impunity – if that’s what it took to bend the will of the Democrats.  If the Obama White House used those same tactics, the Republicans would have no choice but to participate or be rendered similarly irrelevant.

Compare that to the current situation.  By refusing to take part in the health care deliberations, Republican lawmakers have been able to claim to their own voters that they’re having a huge impact by preventing the Obama administration from implementing its plans.  This has reenergized the GOP base and further emboldened congressional Republicans to continue to insist that the Democrats play by their rules or they will end the game.

Instead of inviting the Republicans in for a polite chat next week, Obama should finally start using political legislative levers more effectively to his advantage.  Don't just threaten using budget reconciliation, get a bill moving.  Make a few recess appointments.  And start impounding spending in the districts and states of the Republicans who should be voting with you. Make it clear that they have something to gain or lose based on their response to your entreaties.  A few Obama legislative victories would either convince some GOP representatives and senators to join the game or, as legislation gets enacted and recess appointments get announced, would make it clear that they are not in the game.

Could this force the Obama administration and congressional Democrats to assume full responsibility for the policies if the GOP still refuses to participate? Yes, and presumably they are willing to do that.  That would, after all, be much better than taking sole responsibility for nothing happening.

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Stan Collender is the author of the Capital Gains and Games blog and is a partner with Qorvis Communications LLC