Friday, July 31, 2015

Why the presidential golf game matters

CapitolInq: It makes a difference. While the fights in public are over policy, relationships can help smooth out the issues that so often prevent officials from giving up the inch or two of ground that might make a deal possible.

Why the presidential golf game matters

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President Barack Obama, left, with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., right, chips on the first hole of the golf course at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Monday, May 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama, left, with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., right, chips on the first hole of the golf course at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Monday, May 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON – Game over - Saxby Chambliss has won.

Chambliss, a Republican senator from Georgia, officially has the best amateur golf story ever. He hit a hole-in-one Monday while playing with the president. Everyone else competing for glorious golf tales is now playing for second place (though the late Kim Jong-Il might argue.)

Chambliss, whose very name sounds like he was born to either be a senator or a fictional southern golfer in a Tom Wolfe novel, was part of a foursome who joined President Obama yesterday. On the surface, the game sounds like one of those insidery Washington stories that makes everyone here buzz like they just ate too many Skittles and makes everyone else look at this city a bit oddly.

But one of the most insightful comments I’ve ever heard from a legislator helps explain why Obama’s round with Chambliss and Sens. Bob Corker (R., Tenn) and Mark Udall (D., Col.) might matter.

It came a few years back when I was talking to former New Jersey Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts about another government executive chided for his sometimes chilly relationship with legislators: then New Jersey-Gov. Jon Corzine.

Corzine and Obama, of course, could hardly be more different in most areas. But each suffered from the perception that they were too aloof and unwilling to engage in the back-slapping and arm-twisting that it takes to force their initiatives through legislatures that respond not to national or statewide polls, but to very specific jurisdictions and their own re-election concerns.

Roberts, a Camden County Democrat savvy in both politics and policy, explained to me why a personal touch could have been so vital.

He said that a lawmaker who gets a phone call from the governor spends the whole day telling everyone he just spoke to the governor.

Just that call is enough to puff them up with pride and a feeling that the big guy cares about what they have to say.  

It was a reminder that while politicians’ egos are huge they are also fragile – easily offended but just as easily flattered. It makes a difference. While the fights in public are over policy, relationships can help smooth out the issues that so often prevent officials from giving up the inch or two of ground that might make a deal possible.

This power can certainly be overstated – a golf game isn’t going make someone change their fundamental beliefs – but a senator is more likely to stretch just a bit to help someone he or she kind of likes than someone he or she doesn’t.

(The Washington Post's Paul Kane and Chris Cillizza posted an excellent e-mail exchange on this very topic a few weeks back).

Is Chambliss all of a sudden going to endorse Obamacare? No. But might he compromise a little more willingly on, say, a deficit deal, than he might have before Monday? Maybe.

At the very least, the president gave him a moment in the spotlight, a gesture to show that he matters and the set up for one damn good story to tell back in Georgia.

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About this blog

Jonathan Tamari is the Inquirer’s Washington correspondent. He writes about the lawmakers, politics and policy that affect Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Tamari previously covered the Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL. Before that he worked in Trenton, reporting on the characters and color of New Jersey state government. He lives in Washington.

Reach Jonathan at jtamari@phillynews.com.

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