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An Opportunity for Cooperation?

An Opportunity for Cooperation?

By Jack Kelly - January 17, 2009

"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.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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