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Would More Dinner And Golf Solve Washington's Problems? Ray LaHood Thinks So

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2012.
Brendan Hoffman
Getty Images
Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2012.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is really, really into bipartisanship. So much so that the word appears more than 100 times in his new book, If that doesn't hammer home the point, just glance at the title: Seeking Bipartisanship.

The former Illinois Congressman, one of two Republicans in President Obama's first cabinet, is pretty blunt about his message. "We need more accommodating today. Instead, we have hyperpartisanship," he writes in the book, which was released last month. "The most obvious form shows up in the inability of Democrats and Republicans to negotiate, much less compromise. Both parties deserve blame."

This may not be the best time for an argument for two parties working together. Earlier this month, all four Republican candidates in the Fox Business Network undercard debate refused to answer a question about what Democrat in Congress they "admire."

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal nearly sneered at the question. "We can waste our time," he said. "And I think this is why people were so frustrated with the last debate with these kinds of silly questions."

"Well, since we're not going to answer the question, let me just remind everybody, tomorrow is Veterans Day," answered former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dodged a similar question in a recent forum, refusing to name a Republican she'd consider as a vice president. And in the first Democratic debate, she named the entire Republican party when asked to name an enemy she's made.

By comparison, Obama appointed not one but two Republicans to his initial cabinet – LaHood and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, joined the administration as Defense Secretary in 2013 and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, another Republican, served as ambassador to China during Obama's first term.

Disappointment With Obama

But LaHood made headlines this week when the New York Times wrote an article about a central theme of the book: that the Obama Administration quickly abandoned the president's early goals of a bipartisan way of governing.

"Sometime in January [2009], although I have no hard evidence of it, I believe Obama's inner circle signed off on [then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's] strategy for passing legislation in the house: ignore the Republicans; don't negotiate with them; Democrats have the votes to pass bills without their help," LaHood writes.

LaHood devotes much of his attention to the nearly $800 billion federal stimulus package passed in 2009. He calls the administration's Republican outreach "tepid and ineffective."

Recalling a meeting Obama held with the House Republican caucus ahead of the stimulus vote, LaHood writes,"It was clear to me that the folks in the room were not in a mood to respond to his appeal. They made it clear that Democrats had shut them out"

"They could have said, hey, we're going after some Republicans," LaHood lamented to PBS's Judy Woodruff in a recent interview. "We're going to invite some Republicans down here for dinner and say, 'what do you need for us to get this bill passed? What does it take?"

The Green Lantern To The Rescue?

This line of thinking frustrates Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who has written extensively about what he calls "a totemic obsession" that many Washington leaders have with the idea of bipartisanship.

Nyhan even has a theory for the wine-and-dine bipartisan outreach approach that LaHood argues for: The Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency.

"The idea that if the president only tried hard enough, he can get whatever it is he wants. It's based on the powers of a comic book hero," Nyhan explains. "If he only tried harder, if he only reached out more, if he only did this, that, or the other thing to appeal to Republicans, they would eventually fall at his feet and agree to his requests. There's just very little evidence to suggest that's the case."

Especially on a measure like the 2009 stimulus, a massive debt-funded government spending initiative that went against many core Republican principles.

"I don't think it's plausible that Republicans would vote against their partisan interests and the ideological beliefs of their party just because President Obama played golf with them," says Nyhan. "In a certain sense it's quite insulting to those legislators, as sophisticated people with strong views about how American politics should work."

A spokesperson for LaHood said he was traveling and unavailable to talk.

LaHood's book faults Republicans, as well, for Washington, D.C.'s hyperpartisan atmosphere. Addressing the Tea Party, he writes, "I have no patience for these hard-edged partisans. I detest their Congress."

When A Handshake Is A Political Liability

Of all the candidates running for president this year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie probably spends the most time talking about reaching across the aisle. He often notes that as a Republican governing a deep blue state, he has to cut constant deals – and make frequent use of his veto pen - to pass a state budget and get other measures passed.

But that isn't a positive to many Republican primary voters. At a recent Iowa campaign event, an audience member asked Christie about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. "I was wondering when Obama came to help you, if you feel like you said too much and possibly helped Obama win the presidency. A lot of us feel that way," she asked.

"I shook his hand and I showed him respect," Christie responded. "And I'll tell you this. I don't apologize one minute for anything I did. Because you know who I stood up for? I stood up for the people of New Jersey."

"You touched him," is how Daily Show host Trevor Noah summed up Christie and Obama's post-Sandy meeting during a recent interview. When physical contact with a member of a opposite party is considered an election liability, that's perhaps a sign that bipartisanship is at an all-time low.

Nyhan argues cross-party support for major bills and initiatives has always been the exception, not the rule, in American politics, and that the vision put forward by people like LaHood is a pipe dream.

"It's very difficult to work across party lines, because we have strongly divided parties in this country. And that's not likely to change, and it's bizarre to me that people expect it to whose job it is to understand how politics works," he says.

LaHood seems unconvinced. "Compromise is not a bad word," he told Woodruff. "It's the way our system works. It's the way we move the country forward."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.