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Getting to Yes in Washington and St. Paul

Getting to Yes in Washington and St. Paul
By Eric Black

My mind keeps straying to my favorite scene from Mel Brooks’ (generally overrated, in my humble opinion) cowboy movie spoof “Blazing Saddles” in which the new black sheriff (Cleavon Little) realizes he’s about to get his head blown off by a racist mob, so he draws his gun, points it at his own head and says “hold it, the next man makes a move, the [n-word here] gets it.”

The bluff works for the sheriff, and perhaps it will for the Republicans, too, who in Minnesota are threatening to shut down the state government and in Washington are threatening to blow up the U.S. economy unless the White House/Gov. Dayton adopt the Republican no-new-taxes-now-or-ever approach to deficit reduction.

In a speech to the Economics Club of New York Monday night, House Speaker John Boehner seemed to want to simultaneously reassure the financial markets that the debt-ceiling would be raised while drawing two lines in the sand: trillions of dollars worth of future cuts in federal spending and no new taxes.

This kinda reminds me of recent statements by Minnesota Sen. Majority Leader Amy Koch to the effect that the legislative Repubs won’t compromise with Gov. Dayton on the budget because they have already compromised with themselves.

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There are three ways to take these statements:

  1. Boehner and Koch are serious. They have convinced themselves that a state government shutdown of indefinite duration/a financial panic that serious students of the markets say would be catastrophic are preferable to striking a deal that includes new taxes. They are driving toward the cliff with the pedal to the metal and will not stop unless their respective Dem interlocutors give them what they want.
  2. They are bluffing, in which case they are prepared to jam on the brakes and agree to something (a deal that includes some new taxes) that they say — over and over, every day — they will never agree to; or
  3. They are stuck between their own zealots — who believe that the over-the-cliff  scenario is preferable to a compromise that includes new taxes — and more moderate elements of their own party who would be prepared to compromise. They are saying what they need to say, for now, to keep the zealots happy and hoping they can deliver something that will satisfy both factions (but if that’s the plan, it still requires that the no-new-taxes-is-the-meaning-of-life crowd ends up  more or less satisfied).

The Washington Post today dared to assume that the parties are actually negotiating, but talked to experts in negotiations who said they are doing it in the worst possible way.

For example:

William Ury, who helped found Harvard’s Project on Negotiation and co-wrote the negotiation-lit classic “Getting to Yes,” tried to think of a parallel. “We’re in the same rowboat, and one person says, ‘If you don’t give me that last loaf of bread, I’m going to shoot a hole in the boat, and we’ll both sink.’ ”

The professional negotiators didn’t like the tone of Boehner’s recent statement about Pres. Obama that “it’s time to grow up and get serious!” Nor did they like the Monday statement by Dem. Sen. Charles Schumer that   “Speaker Boehner needs to have an adult moment right here and now.”

It’s not good to disparage the maturity of the other side, the experts said. One, who counsels divorcing couples, said he would cut off the meeting if the spouses starting talking that way about each other.

The Post piece is written in the journalistic “balanced frame” model. Every syllable is based on an unstated assumption that both parties are equally to blame for the bad negotiating rhetoric. But is that so? Boehner is the key player for the Repubs. The Dem side doesn’t need to follow Schumer off a cliff. And anyway, Schumer isn’t threatening to go off any cliffs. Nobody in a key position for the Dems has said the equivalent of what Boehner has said, namely that if certain things are not to his liking, the debt ceiling will not be raised.

But in his more bloggerly voice, the Post’s Ezra Klein perhaps gets closer to what’s going on:

“The negotiation that we’re having, in theory, is how to cut the deficit in order to give politicians in both parties space to increase the debt limit. But if you look closely at the positions, that’s not really the negotiation we’re having. Republicans are negotiating not over the deficit, but over tax rates and the size of government. That’s why they’ve ruled revenue ‘off the table’ as a way to reduce the deficit, and why they are calling for laws and even constitutional amendments that cap federal spending rather than attack deficits. Democrats, meanwhile, lack a similarly clear posture: most of them are negotiating to raise the debt ceiling, but a few are trying to survive in 2012, and a few more are actually trying to reduce the deficit, and meanwhile, the Obama administration just met with the Senate Democrats to ask them to please, please, stop laying down new negotiating markers every day.

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“If we were really just negotiating over the deficit, this would be easy. The White House, the House Republicans, the House Progressives, the House Democrats and the Senate Republicans have all released deficit-reduction plans. There’s not only apparent unanimity on the goal, but a broad menu of approaches. We’d just take elements from each and call it a day. But if the Republicans are negotiating over their antipathy to taxes and their belief that government should be much smaller, that’s a much more ideological, and much tougher to resolve, dispute. The two parties don’t agree on that goal. And if the Democrats haven’t quite decided what their negotiating position is, save to survive this fight both economically and politically, that’s not necessarily going to make things easier, either. Negotiations are hard enough when both sides agree about the basic issue under contention. They’re almost impossible when they don’t.”