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Are Democrats Bad Negotiators?


Duncan Black has a sharp post arguing for the benefits of legislative maximalism. "I don't know why the Dems never learn this lesson," he writes. "If you start with the compromise position, you will and up compromising on that." It is, as others have argued, the first rule of negotiations: Don't start where you want to end.

The implication here is that Democrats should have begun with single payer and compromised down to something substantially to the left of where we are now. And it's a widely held view. I think, at various times, I've held something near to it myself. But I can't, in practice, envision how it would work out. If President Obama had begun health reform with a speech aggressively laying out the case for single payer, the next morning's newspapers would be filled with stories suggesting that 40 Republicans and 30 Democrats had pronounced Obama's health reform effort dead on arrival. And when that got torn apart, Obama's credibility on the issue would've been substantially shredded.

That's pretty much the story of Clinton's reforms: He committed himself to a much more ambitious proposal, but rather than seeing that get bargained down to a more modest bill, Republicans simply used the unpopular elements of the initiative to doom the whole effort.

Which is not to argue, by implication, that the current strategy has been perfect. But I'm not sure a "negotiation" is the right mental frame for what's happening here. This isn't a situation in which two sides are seated around a table and fundamentally hoping to settle on a deal. Each offer is not met by a new counter-offer. Rather, each offer is evaluated for political weaknesses, and then the other side uses those weaknesses to try and kill off the project entirely. The maximalist strategy is predicated, I think, on the existence of counteroffers and the assumption that a final deal will be reached, and the question is simply what it looks like. But I'm not sure those conditions hold in the increasingly crazed hothouse that is Congress.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 25, 2009; 11:06 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Perhaps Obama could have begun by saying there were a number of workable approaches that would expand care while controlling costs, and mentioning some of the strengths and weaknesses of each one, including a couple of variations of single payer.

Within that context, he could have indicated his strong preference for something like what's now the House bill with its strong public plan, but would have simultaneously opened up some room in the discussion to the left of his favored plan.

On many issues, Obama's pushing the edge of acceptable discussion to the left, but the flip side is that his proposals still wind up defining the left end of acceptable discussion. He's got to break out of that trap generally, and this would be one path toward doing so.

Another would be to increase the extent to which he calls on representatives of more leftish media (HuffPo, Mother Jones, TPM, The Nation, etc.) at his press conferences, to legitimize them as part of the discussion.

Posted by: rt42 | June 25, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I agree.

Look at Social Security in 2005. Bush started with a very ideologically conservative plan and got run out of town by Democrats painting it as killing social security. There was no compromise plan and a year later, the Republicans lost the House and Senate. It's not necessarily a causal relationship, but it definitely did not help.

If Obama had started with single payer, he wouldn't have had even the tepid support of any of the key stakeholders and the Republican talking points would have actually had some basis in fact.

Posted by: aaxler1 | June 25, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Bad negotiator you are! Obama didn't need to promote single payer, except to say all options are on the table (and the same to Baucus). Baucus wasn't an unbiased chair trying to make A deal, he wanted HIS deal. Big mistake.

And, you don't negotiate through the media. The starting place is you agree to keep negotiations private until a firm deal is in place, accompanied by a committment to vote for the final bill. No committment, no deal. Make them worry that you'll take the maximum position to the floor.

The Dems are consistently bad negotiators with their own mavericks, and even worse with the opposition party. The Repubs are so unreliable that they should be told that they will only be considered if they bring hard vote committments to the table.

My theory is that the Dems dream of a mystical world where all the details are agreed before the committee vote and no major changes are made on the final floor vote. A nice dream but a poor view of reality.

Negotiations are (or should be) HARDBALL. And that applies to the party caucus as well. Start with a pile of arm casts on a side table, and make it clear that they will be needed for wayward motormouths (Dianne Feinstein, are you listening?). You want to be chair someday? You want a better sub-committee than Pacific Island Affairs? We're ready to be helpful to our friends....

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | June 25, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

yeah, well, I think it was actually due to the unpredictability of the Republicans. In Massachusetts they were all aboard and the plan referenced Heritage foundation white papers and Mitt frickin Romney stood up on stage with Ted Kennedy to make the announcement. There were good indicators that they'd be into taking the plan nationwide. Not only would it mandate another 50 million or so to start putting more money into the private sector (or the gov't put it in on their behalf), it also had deregulation (blending the individual and small group markets) and, arguably, state's rights.

Probably post-election sour grapes, but there was decent evidence they'd be into it.

Posted by: ThomasEN | June 25, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

"If President Obama had begun health reform with a speech aggressively laying out the case for single payer, the next morning's newspapers would be filled with stories suggesting that 40 Republicans and 30 Democrats had pronounced Obama's health reform effort dead on arrival."

Obama did not have to aggressively lay out the case for a single payer. He could have had credible surrogates do that for him.

Posted by: pneogy | June 25, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Here's what I am hoping will happen:

Obama makes a speech before the American people and says, "We want reform and they don't. If you don't have health coverage, it is their fault. Blame them for not giving you the same coverage they get, while supporting a $3 trillion dollar war in Iraq, which would have covered every one in the US."

Put them on the defensive, rather than compromising to appease and opponent who will never surrender and inch and is willing to blow up their party and country.

Posted by: PoliticalPragmatist | June 25, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

If you were right, Ezra, then Kent Conrad would be stamping his approval on an aggressive public plan because the president said so. Instead, the president told him to find a bipartisan plan, so he is negotiating his way to failure.

It is a negotiation if you ask for bipartisan support for the results.

You keep missing it. Why? Do you think we have ten more years to fail and learn?

Posted by: Dollared | June 25, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I don't see what there is to compromise. The public plan option is widely popular--outside of Washington, anyway.

Posted by: bluegrass1 | June 25, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I thought the argument was that the Senate leadership should have started from a further left position with the intent of compromise, not that Obama should rock the bully pulpit right away for single payer. As it is, nobody even nominally put single payer on the table AND Obama hasn't thrown his weight on the issue yet (where I agree with you and others that he's wise to save his big push for the end).

I'm willing to be convinced there's a reason why congress couldn't have started from a further left position in negotiating this, but I haven't seen it yet. What you're arguing is that it would have been fruitless for Obama to put muscle into pushing single payer from square one, which I agree with but is not the same issue.

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | June 25, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Obviously this is not a two-sided negotiation. It's a shadow play, in which actors play roles in front of an audience which registers approval or disapproval in polls and in contacts with legislators. The actors pretend to be negotiating in order to win the approbation of the audience.

And there aren't only two sides. Anyone can be a side. Five sides, ten sides!

What should have happened here is that Obama should have orchestrated a left-wing revolt supporting single payer. Then he could have publicly negotiated a compromise among the Dems, and that would be the plan.

Posted by: Bloix | June 25, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Another instance of how Obama is narcissistically naïve as a negotiator and Max Baucus is probably corrupt on health care was just witnessed this week. Obama touted the promised cuts in drug prices for Medicare by the drug companies.

Aside from the fact that we'll be lucky to see 50% of the promised cuts materialize over the long run, what do you think the deal was that was made on this issue – behind closed doors as the NYT editorial – itself somewhat naïve – on the subject today pointed out?


In return for a few billion in discounts on the Medicare side, Max promised the drug companies that in this particular round of health care "reform" he would keep the emerging oligopolistic prescription drug gusher pumping and make sure, in particular, no one will roll back the obscene provision in the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act (aka Prescription Drug Bill), for which Max acted as the Democratic Quisling, that there cannot be a "public option" for prescription drugs in, of all things, Medicare!

And Obama is going along with it, as if he doesn't realize that this is chump change relative to what you could get if you had a robust public option for prescription drugs in Medicare. This isn't speculative, ladies and gentlemen. The data is available on what other single payer or quasi-single payer systems pay for prescription drugs. Oh, I forgot, that's so the drug companies can subsidize their research, you know, "researching" which academics are making the breakthroughs so they can take them and their administrators to lunch to get the patent rights.

And I'll bet Max went further and assured the drug companies that somehow he'll work it out that there will not be a public option on the "reform" for the <65 crowd. Or if there is that the public option will be so neutered that they won't have to worry about it, at least not for prescription drugs. Just look what has happened to Federal government based student loans relative to the private sector for an object lesson of how, with a few senatorial friends, you can drown out even a public option.

And Obama is going along with it.

You read it here first, folks.

Krugman has it right on Obama. He's so narcissistically infatuated with his own faux image as the great bi-partisan leader that the American people will take it on the chin yet again.

It is happening before our eyes – and Ezra is making excuses for the great bi-partisan leader.

Posted by: billyblog | June 25, 2009 11:36 PM | Report abuse

The issue isn't whether Obama should have made a grand single payer speech -- it's whether or not he should have participated in the bizarre Stalinist purge of public mention of single payer by Democrats. That process was so extreme that we had the spectacle of doctors taking arrests in Senate Finance Committee hearings just to get ONE voice to testify.

There were lots of ways to have kicked off the debate with single payer as a threatening option -- Obama could have talked to Pelosi, and asked her to have the House, rather than the Senate lead, and let House committees do a thorough, somber assessments of systemic (vs. government only) costs and benefits based on CBO scoring of fleshed-out options, including HR 676. Generate a few headlines that say "economists say government health insurance more efficient."

Instead we got the monumentally incompetent and confusing Baucus hearings which climaxed with the shipping of a half-finished to the CBO for the worst possible score.

Baucus is now admitting that he completely screwed up the politics. Nice seven-level chess the administration has not played here.

And yes it is a negotiation. It's the insurance industry against everyone else, or maybe insurance and Rx. It's a pure exercise in power. We'll get what we have the power to take back from them, and keep what we have the power to hold.

Thus far Obama, Baucus and Conrad have exactly replicated the dynamics of 1994.

Posted by: jcc2455 | June 26, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

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