"He is so well informed, and he loves to deal with both sides of an
issue," said Larry Kudlow, conservative economist and CNBC talk show
host. "I was honored to meet him. He is a very impressive man."
He is President-elect Barack Obama, with whom Mr. Kudlow and other
conservative opinion leaders, including columnist Charles Krauthammer,
Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot, Weekly Standard
Editor Bill Kristol and National Review Editor Rich Lowry, dined Tuesday
night at the home of columnist George Will.
The dinner caused consternation among partisans left and right. Some
liberals wondered if it didn't presage a further trimming of the
promises Mr. Obama made during the campaign. Some conservatives groused
the pundits were trading in their principles for greater standing in the
D.C. social circuit.
But as a matter of both policy and politics, the dinner was exactly the
right thing for both Mr. Obama and his frequent critics to do.
Mr. Obama spoke often in the campaign of his intent to listen to all
sides in the American conversation. This is apparently one campaign
promise he intends to keep.
The likelihood the dinner conversation changed anyone's mind about big
issues is exceedingly small. But what almost certainly will happen is
that the pundits will be quicker to praise Mr. Obama when they think he
is right, more gentle in their criticism when they think he is wrong.
That's certainly worth the investment of an evening's time.
And it's worth the investment of an evening to try to change the tone in
Washington. I blame the poisonous atmosphere in the capital more on his
critics than on President Bush, but Mr. Obama's efforts to change that
atmosphere are welcome. America has real enemies. But Democrats and
Republicans are not among them. Extreme partisans on both sides could
profit from the example of civility and outreach set by the
president-elect and the conservative pundits.
Yes, it's all symbolism. But symbolism is important. I think the
greatest failure of the Bush administration was his failure to
communicate effectively what he was doing, and why. He spent little
time talking to his friends, much less to his critics. It would be an
exaggeration to say Barack Obama already has spent more effort in
outreach to conservative opinion leaders than Dubya did in his eight
years in office, but it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration.
And Mr. Obama displays an exquisite subtlety in his symbolism. The day
after the dinner at the Will home, he met with liberal pundits, which is
wholly appropriate. But the meeting with the liberals didn't last as
long, and no refreshments were served. Both evangelical Pastor Rick
Warren and gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson will pray at the
Inaugural, but Pastor Warren has the more prominent role.
Beneath the symbolism there is the slim possibility of substantive
cooperation from time to time. The Obama administration appears likely
to occupy ground between the Democratic leadership in Congress and
Republicans. So on some issues like, for instance, on the size and
nature of tax cuts in the stimulus package it might be the president
and the GOP against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority
Leader Harry Reid.
The dinner at the Will home may have been part of Mr. Obama's effort to
obtain GOP support for his stimulus plan, from which he has much more to
gain than Republicans do. If it works, Mr. Obama will get all the
credit. If it doesn't, GOP participation will make it harder for
Republicans to criticize him at election time.
The most juvenile assumption partisans make is that the people who
disagree with them are stupid. Republicans will be in big trouble if
they fail to recognize that Mr. Obama is a formidable political talent.
Republicans should accept the hand he extends to them, because it is
far, far more important that the economy recover than that Democrats be
blamed for its failure to do so. But Republicans should count carefully
their fingers afterward.