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.
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