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For Obama, Boehner, how about cigarette summit?

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
  • President Obama and new Republican congressional leaders meet this week
  • They'll meet as bitter rivals; such meetings weren't always this way, John Avlon says
  • Politicians once could disagree by day, negotiate over friendly dinners by night, Avlon says
  • Avlon: Obama, John Boehner should sit down with a cigarette and find common ground

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- On Tuesday afternoon, President Obama will meet with Republican Congressional leaders for the first time since the midterm election. The White House meeting had been dubbed the "Slurpee summit," but it's going to take something stronger than a flavored ice shake to cut through the deep distrust that's accumulated between these two parties.

The Kool-Aid that gets passed around Washington most often these days is the belief that our political opponents are sworn enemies. It is an idea compounded by partisan media that demonizes even minor disagreements.

But it wasn't always this way. In the past, Democrats and Republicans could disagree on policies throughout the day, then meet together for a drink or dinner. Their children went to school together. Their families saw each other on the weekends or at worship services. But now congressmen fly home from Washington as often as possible.

There is very little time for across-the-aisle socializing and much more time for accusing opponents of being socialist. Our political leaders don't get to know each other as people.

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That's where the cigarette comes in. It's a strange fact that Obama and speaker-elect John Boehner have been known to smoke, while the majority of Americans have given up this once common vice. It is a streak of illogic and self-destructiveness in otherwise disciplined and ambitious men who have climbed to the top of their field without wheezing.

So if Boehner and Obama are both going to be tempted to sneak out for a smoke at some point during their bipartisan summit, here's a suggestion: Do it together. Have an honest off-the-record conversation and get to know each other as individuals.

These two men come from very different backgrounds. Boehner was one of a dozen children whose father ran a bar in Ohio; Obama was raised by a single mother in Hawaii after his father returned to Africa. But they are both examples of the American dream, and they both love their country. Sharing a smoke is an opportunity to acknowledge that they're both hugely accomplished but still flawed individuals.

It's an opportunity to admit that, yes, they have serious philosophical differences but that, for the good of the country, they need to find a way to work together, and that begins with a conversation.

Unguarded, off-the-record socializing was an important reason the closely divided Congresses of the 1950s worked so effectively. Then Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson smoked and drank and played cards with his Republican counterparts. Of course, he was then considered a conservative southern Democrat, and that made it easier to reach across the aisle during the Eisenhower administration.

The decline of both progressive Republicans and conservative Democrats has made the partisan gulf wider. But even in the epic philosophic fights that accompanied the Watergate era and the Reagan administration, House Speaker Tip O'Neill would famously have a drink with President Ford or President Reagan after a long day of principled differences and parliamentary maneuvers.

It was a recognition of a forgotten American wisdom - that our political opponents are not our enemies.

In contrast, let's cite just one small recent example of how far we've fallen. On Monday, Republican Rep. Joe Barton created a PowerPoint presentation, first reported by the Huffington Post, in his bid to secure the chairmanship of the Energy Committee. It compared Republican congressional leaders to General Eisenhower, General Omar Bradley, and General George S. Patton in "battle against the Obama administration."

The only problem here is that this would, by implication, make the president and his Democratic allies the Nazi German army. This is unhelpful in creating a tone of mutual respect and constructive engagement. But we seem to be getting desensitized to such loaded comparisons.

Once Obama and Boehner get past the interpersonal niceties, there is some common ground substance to discuss. Friendly recognition of Obama's decision to announce a two-year pay freeze for all federal workers would be a step in the right direction. It was a policy proposal advanced by many Republicans in recent months. It should be treated as the beginning of some good faith bargaining going forward.

Likewise, there might be some compromise on extending the tax cuts for households that make less than $1 million a year.

On the deficit and debt front, Obama and Boehner could agree to back the bipartisan deficit reduction panel if it comes back with proposals. The deep distrust and persuasive hyper-partisanship that has suffused our political debates makes that kind of common ground conversation almost impossible. But the time for campaigning has ended. The time for governing has begun again.

Sharing a smoke -- however unwise or un-PC that might sound -- or a drink or a meal every once in a while is just one way to jumpstart a relationship.

In a democracy, government cannot be a warfare of interests. It depends on people in our government honoring principled disagreements but always keeping in mind that what unites us as Americans is more important than what divides us.

The responsibility of leadership is to repair some of the broken trust in American institutions. That effort must extend beyond photo-op bipartisanship. It must be built on the foundation of honest conversation and getting to know each other as people rather than partisan caricatures with cloven hooves and horns. A cigarette summit isn't a one-step solution, it's just the start of a conversation.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.