How not to negotiate

HOW NOT TO NEGOTIATE…. E.J. Dionne noted in his column this morning that President Obama has an awkward strategy of “offering preemptive concessions,” which doesn’t seem to make anyone happy.

We’ve seen enough of these examples to characterize it as a trend, if not a bad habit. The White House should have used tax cuts in the stimulus debate as an incentive to pick up Republican support, but Obama and his team instead offered them from the outset, and then negotiated backwards. On energy, the president offered expanded nuclear power and oil drilling — top GOP demands — in exchange for nothing. On the budget, Obama announced spending and pay freezes — high on the Republicans’ wish list — and got literally nothing in return.

And this week, all evidence suggests the White House will grudgingly cave to Republican demands on ineffective and expensive tax cuts, and whether Dems will get anything in return remains unclear.

In isolation, it’s possible to come up with plausible rationales for the individual moves. Maybe Obama went with the pay freeze to preempt a GOP drive to do something more drastic, like firing large portions of the federal workforce. Maybe he included a huge tax cut in the stimulus from the outset to keep conservative Dems on board with the larger plan. Maybe the president would approach all of these debates from a stronger position if he had any confidence in congressional Democrats to stick together when the going got tough, and if there were more than two Republicans in Congress willing to even consider crossing party lines.

But taken together, Ezra Klein is entirely right to question the president’s skills as a poker player.

“The best negotiator I ever came across was [former Reagan and Bush chief of staff] Jim Baker,” says Paul Begala, who served as an adviser to President Clinton. “He began every negotiation with this sentence: ‘Nothing is agreed to till everything is agreed to.’ So no one can pocket anything, and no one suffers for making the first move.” To many Democrats, Republicans have simply proven the wisdom of Baker’s strategy: They keep pocketing these gains without giving the White House any credit, while both the Democrats and Obama take lashings from their base for being insufficiently principled and tactically incompetent.

“You don’t go out and say you’re going to freeze federal pay on your own,” says one angry Hill staffer. “You go sit across a table from someone, say, ‘I’m willing to do this, but this is what you’ve got to give me.’ That’s how this works.”

The obvious question, then, is why Obama keeps making this mistake. Maybe he’s trying to impress voters with his reasonableness and willingness to meet Republicans half-way? Perhaps, but there’s no evidence that the public is even aware of these developments, better yet inclined to give the president credit.

Maybe he’s trying to coax congressional Republicans by making the first step, encouraging them follow his conciliatory lead? It’s possible, but after two years of scorched-earth tactics intended to destroy the Obama presidency at all costs, I’m comfortable concluding that this doesn’t work.

Ezra added, “The going theory — which you hear both inside and outside the White House — is that this is what happens when a president who wants to be bipartisan gets stuck in a partisan moment. Obama remains intent on proving his interest in working across the aisle but impatient with negotiations that will go nowhere and produce nothing.”

The answer, then, is to learn from the mistakes and adjust the strategy. Despite the flawed approach to negotiations, the Obama White House has racked up some extraordinary accomplishments in less than two years, and helped get a country that was spiraling downwards back on track. Now is the perfect time to take stock, acknowledge the lessons learned, and realize which tactics worked better than others. That Congress is poised to become breathtakingly ridiculous in the new year only makes this need more acute.

The president and his team can start by realizing that “preemptive concessions” are a mistake — and that a one-sided commitment to bipartisanship is a recipe for failure.