How not to negotiate, 101

HOW NOT TO NEGOTIATE, 101…. In just 11 days, if policymakers in D.C. do not strike a compromise on a budget for this fiscal year, the government will shut down. There were some high-level talks last week, but by all indications, they went very poorly.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reports that Democrats are prepared to do even more to make Republicans even happier.

The White House and Democratic lawmakers, with less than two weeks left to avoid a government shutdown, are assembling a proposal for roughly $20 billion in additional spending cuts that could soon be offered to Republicans, according to people close to the budget talks.

That would come on top of $10 billion in cuts that Congress has already enacted and would represent a deeper reduction than the Obama administration and Senate Democrats had offered previously in negotiations. But it isn’t clear that would be enough to satisfy Republicans, who initially sought $61 billion in spending cuts and face pressure from tea-party activists not to compromise.

Now, I haven’t seen confirmation of this elsewhere, and the Wall Street Journal isn’t always the most reliable of sources, especially when it comes to Democratic plans.

But just for the sake of conversation, let’s say this is accurate. It would mean that Democrats are prepared to give Republicans about $30 billion in cuts, just for this fiscal year, just to make the GOP happy enough to let the government stay open — at least until the next spending fight.

Some of you might be thinking, “Wait, $30 billion in cuts sounds kind of familiar.” That’s because we’ve seen this figure before — back in February, House Republican leaders had no intention of keeping their campaign promise, and instead proposed about $30 billion in cuts.

At the time — we’re talking about just six weeks ago — Democrats thought this level of reductions was outrageous, and they were right. Indeed, the $30 billion in cuts was considered so severe, one report referred to the proposal as “the GOP Chainsaw Massacre.”

And yet, here we are in late March, and now Democrats are prepared to accept the exact same number used by Republican leaders, and it seems likely GOP lawmakers still won’t think this is good enough. Indeed, rank-and-file Republicans balked at their own leadership’s plan when $30 billion in cuts were put on the table, and it stands to reason the caucus won’t be any more impressed now that a similar offer is presented by Dems.

But putting aside whether this is likely to work, the lesson I’d like Democrats to take from this is simple: you’re not good at negotiating. Republicans approved a ridiculous proposal, pushing the extreme in one direction, knowing that negotiations would ensue. One need not be a game theorist to know those talks would go better if Dems had pushed in the opposite direction.

That way, when the two sides tried to meet “in the middle,” that middle would be in a more favorable location.

But, no. The discussion boiled down to one side that wanted to cut a little, and one side that wanted to cut a lot. The new Democratic offer is effectively the same as the old Republican leadership’s offer. Adding insult to injury, the original GOP leaders’ plan was itself supposed to be the starting point for negotiations, and was expected to move closer to the Democratic position in order to find a compromise.

That’s what would have happened if, (a) the GOP’s rank-and-file weren’t quite so hysterical, and (b) Dems were better at this game.

Update: It looks like Ezra is thinking along the same lines.