Posted by: Matt Compton | January 29, 2008

A game among friends

Some people think Barack Obama’s message of reaching across the aisle and finding Republican allies for his agenda is a rhetorical tactic — something like Bush’s first term ‘compassionate conservatism’ — which he says but does not mean.

Others believe that this idea of moving past partisanship is a hopelessly-naive, even dangerously-misguided mistake — a chance for the Republicans to take advantage of his potential presidency and undermine his plans.

But it’s important to recognize that this isn’t what Barack Obama believes. This quick, little story from The New Yorker is the perfect example of that.

As James McManus (author of the wonderful Positively Fifth Street) tells it, young, first-term State Senator Obama faced some cold shoulders when he got to the legislature. His first instinct was to make some friends, and he decided to do that with poker:

Along with another freshman senator, Terry Link, Obama started up a regular game in Link’s Springfield living room. It began with five players but quickly grew to eight and developed a long waiting list, which included not only Democrats but Republicans and lobbyists.

That kind of personal, bipartisan bonding has become more difficult in Washington, both because members of Congress have access to cheap flights and feel pressure to return to their districts and because there is so much distrust between the two parties that it simply is not socially acceptable. But historically, that’s exactly the kind of collegial event that kept the lines of communications between the parties open. Famously, Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neil and Republican minority leader Bob Michael were golf partners and drinking buddies. President Reagan courted Democrats at White House dinners and parties, and his relationship with O’Neil was such that he offered to make the Speaker the new ambassador to Ireland when he retired from Congress.

Maybe it is, in fact, impossible to try to build these kinds of personal bridges between the two parties at this day and time. But temperamentally, that’s exactly what Obama in inclined to do, and he’s had some success with it in his personal history.

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