In a Transactional Town, You Need Real Relationships

Scaffolding surrounds the U.S. Capitol Building Dome before sunrise in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014. C
Scaffolding surrounds the U.S. Capitol Building Dome before sunrise in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014. Congress will vote this week on a $1.1 trillion spending plan that would avert a U.S. government shutdown as Democrats agreed to roll back rules affecting banks, clean water and rest for truckers. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Why did Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, win another term in the House on the first ballot Tuesday? It all comes down to one word: relationships.

"If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." That line, misattributed to President Harry Truman, has been taken as gospel by scores of politicians, staffers, and operators in our nation's capital. People, including "Give 'Em Hell Harry," would have you believe that politics is nothing more than "you scratch my back and I will scratch yours."

While tradeoffs are an essential ingredient to reconciling conflicting positions, the transactional view in some ways puts the cart ahead of the horse. In reality, genuine personal relationships are essential to create any hope of bridging differences and finding common ground.

Recent trends have made the leadership of the two chambers of Congress much more powerful. Yet this power comes from the relationships they have built up over the years with the rank and file. Since most of this work occurs behind the scenes or at one of hundreds of sparsely covered campaign stops from Reedville, Virginia, to Morro Bay, California, it is lost on most people how much time Congressional leaders invest in developing these relationships.

During my first race for political office, I faced a fourth term incumbent. David Minge was a moderate Democrat who was generally well-liked. No pundit predicted my victory and almost no one in Washington, including my party, did much of anything to support my efforts.

The first congressman to campaign for me in Minnesota in 2000 was John Boehner, who the year before had lost his position in leadership but was clearly hoping to return.

The only thing I had on the calendar that day was a picnic in the farming community of Olivia (pop. 2,484). I can still remember today's Speaker of the House standing on a hay wagon telling the good people of Renville County how their world would be better if Mark Kennedy was their congressman. He also didn't mind that I had booked radio interviews with stations scattered across my rural district during the nearly two-hour trip each way. We did have a pig roast and live country music courtesy of a family friend though, so he at least got to travel back to the airport with some memorable melodies and a full stomach.

During my early years in Congress, Boehner was very much a backbencher. As someone who won my race by 155 out of 290,000 votes, I, too, was a backbencher. At many a Tuesday morning House Republican Conference meeting, I would find myself sitting beside John, singularly benefiting from his under the breath color commentary.

It should come as no surprise that when his chance to return to leadership came in 2006, during his close contest with Roy Blunt for Majority Leader, I supported John Boehner. Not only did I think he was the best candidate (without taking anything away from the exceptional talents of Senator Blunt), but I also regarded him as a friend. And friendship, like a road less traveled, made all the difference when it came to cast my vote.

Having lost his bid for vice president, then-Senator John F. Kennedy opined, "You don't understand politics until you are defeated. Then, all the mysteries become apparent."

Perhaps if President Truman ever lost an election he would understand that relationships are vital to making our oftentimes-messy democracy work.

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy (@HonMarkKennedy) leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).

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