Playing the Game

PLAYING THE GAME….Yesterday I suggested that the Democratic leadership got badly outplayed in last week’s FISA fiasco. They were lulled into thinking that negotiations over the FISA amendment were all going fine, and then at the last minute got blindsided with new demands they weren’t prepared for. With no backup strategy in place, they caved. Publius, however, disagrees:

Was it all planned? If so, that’s some pretty impressive chess playing. And that’s the problem with this theory. It’s hard to believe that the same bunch that loses nearly 200,000 AK-47s and pistols in Iraq is capable of this sort of Kasparov-esque foresight.

….Bottom line — I think some went awry inside the White House. Some wires got crossed. Either that, or they are chess geniuses acting in extremely bad faith. Frankly, it seems obnoxious even for them to purposely go through the motions of reaching an agreement with the House Dems with the knowledge that they would never honor it. As OCSteve said in the comments yesterday: “We don’t have to attribute to evil what pure [incompetence] can accomplish.”

Given the choice, I generally choose incompetence over evil myself, but for two reasons I’m not sure I do in this case. First: although the Bush White House is famously incompetent in carrying out actual policy, they’ve long been pretty sharp when it comes to political maneuvering. This kind of ploy is Negotiation 101, and Cheney, Rove, and Addington are almost certainly pretty well versed in it. They aren’t naifs.

Second, and more important: These negotiations had been going on for months, not just a few days, and Mike McConnell, who led the talks, was no junior lawyer. He’s a vice admiral, a former director of the NSA, current Director of National Intelligence, broadly respected in both parties, and very plainly the person who knows the most about the technical requirements of the NSA’s eavesdropping program. There’s no way that he simply “misunderstood” the White House’s requirements here.

What’s more, the last-minute changes weren’t trivial. They were big changes, the language implementing them was subtle and obviously well thought out, and the demand came literally on the last day before adjournment. If this was a screwup, it was helluva smooth looking screwup.

In any case, Publius is definitely correct in his conclusion:

That said, there was an agreement and it was broken in a particularly bad faith manner. From a policy perspective (and for game theory reasons), this sort of conduct undermines future negotiations on virtually any other issue and poisons the air. Accordingly, I fully expect to see David Ignatius, Anne-Marie Slaughter, David Broder, and others up in arms about this affront to bipartisan cooperation and common decency in the days ahead.

Um, sure, me too. I won’t be waiting up nights for it, though.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation