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Pennsylvania Car Dealer Has Advice for Obama

February 15, 2009

Many years ago a political ally of mine – Frank Morrow – a well-known western Pennsylvania Republican and businessman – taught me a valuable political lesson that was inherent in his business success.

Mr. Morrow owned several automobile dealerships outside Pittsburgh, and his principal advice to his sales force was: "Don’t win the argument and lose the sale." He wanted his sales persons to empathize with potential buyers and not force them to consider a car that did not meet their transportation needs.

Forcing them to consider a car they really didn’t want only ensured that they would not return – and run the risk they’d tell their friends about the bad experience.

Mr. Morrow’s sales adage came to mind this week after reports of political "crowing" on the part of the Obama Administration for passage of the economic stimulus package – despite the fact that nearly every Republican in Congress voted against the bill.

While final passage of the bill was never actually in doubt, there was hope among voters that partisan politics would be put aside and that President Obama would find a way to work with Republicans and gain their support.

It is the responsibility of the majority party to facilitate compromise and reach a bipartisanship consensus – based on the fact that the minority party has little to offer except ideas. As the majority Democrats control initial authorship, the legislative calender, the sequence of events that will determine how and when the legislation moves through the process – they even dictate which amendments – if any – get passed.

That’s why it was disappointing for President Obama and Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to trump Republican ideas and virtually stop debate and proclaim, "We won – we’ll do it our way."

President Obama did meet with Republicans – but when he incorporated only a few of their ideas into the stimulus bill he lost any hope of winning their votes. Three Republican Senators did vote for the bill – Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snow and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter – albeit some consider them Republicans in name only.

Most give President Obama high marks for marshaling the stimulus package through the legislative process and keeping Congress focused on passing the bill quickly. The White House public relations offensive was exactly as one might expect – hosting Republicans at the White House to symbolize bipartisanship while making campaign-style speeches in key swing states.

Truth is no one actually knows if the stimulus package will work but most agree that the infusion of $800 billion dollars into the economy can’t hurt – and if the economy does pick up this year, President Obama will certainly get much of the credit.

However, the President may have created a long-term rift with Republicans when he dissed most of their ideas. He will need Republican support later to pass other parts of his agenda – namely health care, social security, energy, and national security.

While the President created the illusion of bipartisanship – Republicans know better and are now lying in wait for the next opportunity when the President comes calling for their votes. He will then learn that the "might makes right" bravado Democrats took toward Republican ideas on the stimulus package will not be forgotten.

President Obama did get the votes necessary to pass the stimulus package – and it contained the elements he wanted in the bill.

But he would do well to remember an old adage from a successful western Pennsylvania car dealer: "Don’t win the argument and lose the sale."