How Democrats Can Get to Yes

If they want to end the shutdown and avoid default, they must find a way to let Republicans save face.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (L), R-OH, listens as US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Syria during a meeting with members of Congress at the White House in Washington, DC, September 3, 2013. Obama told congressional leaders that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs to be held accountable for allegedly carrying out the August 21 attack near Damascus, which US officials say killed nearly 1,500 people, including hundreds of children. 
AFP/Getty Images
Oct. 10, 2013, 5 p.m.

Google is a pretty amaz­ing thing. The oth­er day I was think­ing about the gov­ern­ment-shut­down mess and how it might be re­solved, des­pite the ele­ment in the Re­pub­lic­an Party, and spe­cific­ally on Cap­it­ol Hill, that re­mains com­mit­ted to ex­tend­ing the shut­down as a reas­on­able tac­tic in the war on big gov­ern­ment. Most oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans, deep down, have real mis­giv­ings about all this, and know it’s not the way to settle dis­putes. Sure, mem­bers of this second group view the Af­ford­able Care Act as hor­rif­ic policy with the po­ten­tial to dam­age the eco­nomy and cost jobs, but they don’t see shut­ter­ing the gov­ern­ment or re­fus­ing to raise the debt ceil­ing as a reas­on­able strategy. These Re­pub­lic­ans are backed in­to a corner, though. If their party’s base per­ceives them as cav­ing in to Pres­id­ent Obama’s de­mands, they are sure to be ac­cused of lack­ing prin­ciple and ca­pit­u­lat­ing to a pres­id­ent whom some see as just short of the dev­il. They would likely face a con­ser­vat­ive chal­lenge in their next elec­tion.

At the same time, too many Demo­crats seem to be en­joy­ing this de­bacle, ap­pear­ing to view the fight as a ter­rif­ic polit­ic­al op­por­tun­ity to in­flict some real dam­age on the Re­pub­lic­an Party. It cer­tainly looks as if Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, a box­er in his early years, thinks he has his foot on the throat of House Speak­er John Boehner and the GOP and is not in­ter­ested in tak­ing it off. Stor­ies that Re­id in­sisted on keep­ing Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden away from key meet­ings re­in­force this view; the ma­jor­ity lead­er ap­par­ently sees Biden as too will­ing to cut a deal and forge a com­prom­ise.

Right or wrong, this is how I was see­ing things, and I began won­der­ing how a skilled ne­go­ti­at­or might deal with such an im­passe. When I was young, whenev­er I would ask a com­plic­ated ques­tion, my mom or dad would al­ways tell me to “look it up in the en­cyc­lo­pe­dia.” So I turned to its mod­ern-day equi­val­ent, Google, typ­ing in “Gov­ern­ment shut­down ex­pert ne­go­ti­ation.” The very first art­icle that popped up was a fant­ast­ic Oct. 3 column by Jena Mc­Gregor, in her Wash­ing­ton­Post.com fea­ture On Lead­er­ship. Mc­Gregor, a former ed­it­or at Bloomberg Busi­nes­s­week, quoted five con­flict-res­ol­u­tion ex­perts, start­ing with Wil­li­am Ury, cofounder of Har­vard Law School’s Pro­gram on Ne­go­ti­ation, who has been in­volved in dis­putes ran­ging from cor­por­ate mer­gers and coal-min­ing strikes to eth­nic wars abroad. Ury, the coau­thor of the book Get­ting to Yes, says, “There is a power struggle go­ing on,” and adds, “The ques­tion is, how is this power struggle go­ing to be re­solved?”

The ex­perts, in Mc­Gregor’s words, made three ma­jor points: “This is likely to get worse be­fore it gets bet­ter. The pres­id­ent might choose not to ne­go­ti­ate on his core prin­ciples, but he’ll still have to find a way to let Re­pub­lic­ans save face. And even if you’re deal­ing with host­age-takers, there’s still room to talk.”

It was the second point that really res­on­ated with me. If your in­tent is to decim­ate your op­pos­i­tion and win at all costs, that’s one thing. But if your in­ten­tion is to re­solve a con­flict that has enorm­ous con­sequences for our na­tion­al eco­nomy and fin­ances, you have to give your op­pos­i­tion a place to land, a way to settle and save face.

Mc­Gregor makes an im­port­ant point: “Right now, however bad the shut­down may be for many people, neither Demo­crat­ic [nor] Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers yet feel im­me­di­ate pain from the fal­lout. Demo­crats know the polls show that Re­pub­lic­ans are get­ting hit worse by the gov­ern­ment’s clos­ure. And Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t yet get­ting heat from con­stitu­ents for their hard-line po­s­i­tions. But at some point, a show­down — or worse, the po­ten­tial of a dis­astrous de­fault — could be­come so pain­ful that it drives people to the ne­go­ti­ation table.” 

The dis­clos­ures earli­er this week that fam­il­ies of mil­it­ary per­son­nel killed in Afgh­anistan might not be get­ting the im­me­di­ate death be­ne­fits owed to them, in­clud­ing money for fu­ner­al ex­penses, could help spark the ne­ces­sary cit­izen out­rage.

One of the things that helped pre­cip­it­ate the show­down is that many Demo­crats re­fuse to ac­know­ledge that the enorm­ous and hugely com­plic­ated health care law ac­tu­ally might have prob­lems that need to be le­gis­lat­ively ad­dressed. One Demo­crat­ic House mem­ber told me a couple of months ago that Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi had made it very clear to her mem­bers that she did not want to hear any talk of crack­ing open the Af­ford­able Care Act to ad­dress some of its short­com­ings. Polls have con­sist­ently shown that while some Amer­ic­ans stead­fastly want Obama­care re­pealed and oth­ers want to keep it ex­actly the way it is, a plur­al­ity want to see it — choose a word — re­paired, fixed, or mod­i­fied. Yet few on Cap­it­ol Hill, on either side, seem will­ing to ut­ter those words.

Mc­Gregor turned to Robert Mnook­in, the dir­ect­or of the Har­vard Ne­go­ti­ation Re­search Pro­ject and au­thor of Bar­gain­ing With the Dev­il: When to Ne­go­ti­ate and When to Fight. Mnook­in goes straight to this point: “The ob­vi­ous deal, if I were to make a pre­dic­tion, is for there to be a clean budget and a clean ex­ten­sion done sim­ul­tan­eously with an agree­ment that there’s go­ing to be some bi­par­tis­an ap­proach to im­prov­ing the health care law.” But he then asks, “How can Obama cred­ibly com­mit to be­ing flex­ible to con­sid­er­ing changes? It’s clear he’s not go­ing to make changes that are go­ing to gut it.”

Some­how, though, Obama and con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats have to give Re­pub­lic­ans, at least the ones who want to re­solve this — and I would put Boehner in that cat­egory, re­gard­less of what he has said in re­cent days — a place to land, some way to get to yes.

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