Tag Archives: negotiation

Meeting In The Middle? Where’s That?

With the Biden-Harris team in the White House, Republicans and pundits are sanctimoniously insisting that “unity” requires “meeting in the middle.” The use of that term–“the middle”–reveals a significant misunderstanding of the definition of moderation and the process of compromise.

It also drives me nuts.

A friend recently reminded me of Jim Hightower’s observation that  there’s nothing in the mIddle of the highway except a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.

What is “the middle” between belief in QAnon and adherence to the Constitution? What’s the “middle” between White Supremacy and effective civil rights protections? Between accurate reporting and propaganda? Between protecting the rich and feeding hungry children?

What, exactly, is this magic “middle”?

I have referred previously to the Overton Window. That window is the range of public policies that are widely acceptable to voters at a specific point in time. The window does shift–perhaps the most vivid recent example is same-sex marriage: thirty years ago, efforts to recognize such marriages were virtually unthinkable; today, a majority of Americans approve of them. 

Shifts of the Overton window illustrate how our concepts of both the “middle” and what constitutes moderation change.

During my adult lifetime, the Republican Party has steadily moved to the right, pulling both the Democrats and “the middle” along with it. Today–and I do not intend this as hyperbole–the GOP is located somewhere between radically reactionary and insane. The fact that members of this incredibly retrograde party consider contemporary Democrats “far left” is meaningless–next to today’s GOP, my conservative grandmother would be far left. Political science research confirms that America’s most “left-wing” politicians are not nearly as “left” as most Europeans who fall into that category.

Which brings me back to the calls of well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) observers for “middle ground,” “bipartisanship,” “moderation” and “compromise. “

Bipartisanship can be achieved whenever members from both the GOP and the Democratic Party agree on a policy. The House vote to impeach Trump a second time was bipartisan, because ten Republicans voted yes. The term is  simply descriptive, although it tends to be used to suggest that bipartisanship equates to virtue. It doesn’t. If members of both major parties voted to deprive Muslims of citizenship, the fact that the vote was bipartisan would not  magically make it  virtuous. Plenty of racist laws have been passed with bipartisan support.

Compromising requires good-faith negotiation over points of honest contention. For example, Biden is reportedly willing to compromise with lawmakers over his COVID package by acceding to (quite reasonable) requests that stimulus payments not go to high-income families. Compromise in order to make at least incremental progress on an issue–rather than intransigence preventing any progress at all– is usually positive, but if by “compromise” we mean the evisceration of a good policy in order to accomplish an empty victory, not so much.

It depends on the compromise.

Moderation is defined as the absence of extremism. Unfortunately, given how insane the GOP has become, most media outlets automatically label any Republican who isn’t a QAnon believer or Big Lie promoter a “moderate.” Her vote to impeach Trump was correct and even admirable, but it did not make Liz Cheney a moderate.

Bottom line: the search for a “middle ground” is only reasonable when the parties involved in a particular dispute are rational, intellectually honest and operating in good faith.

These current calls for middle ground, moderation and bipartisanship remind me of Rodney King’s famous plea: “can’t we all get along?” That desire to “get along”– to be generous and civil and non-confrontational– is incredibly appealing. It resonates because so much of our public life right now is so rancorous and ugly. Believe me, I understand where it comes from. 

But permit me an analogy:

When your two-year old has a tantrum because he wants two cookies that he shouldn’t have, you don’t mollify him by finding “middle ground.” You don’t reward the outburst by giving him one cookie.  Your obligation as a parent is to help him mature into an adult who understands that inappropriate behaviors will not get him even a portion of what he wants.

There are a lot of two-year-olds in today’s QOP, including  most obviously the former President. The rest of us should tune out the screaming and crying and help the few who seem capable of it to grow up. “Meeting in the middle”–when the middle is halfway between sense and nonsense– is as bad for public policy as it is for parenting.

There’s a reason we don’t negotiate with terrorists.






Sticking to Principle

It’s a complaint we hear constantly from both ends of the political spectrum: we want to elect people who will “stick to their principles.” We’re tired of the DINOs and RINOs willing to negotiate with the political “enemy,” look for areas of agreement and–most scandalous of all–settle for results that are less than 100% of what “our” side demands.

Look, I get wanting principal. No one wants an elected official without a spine, or worse, a lawmaker willing to “sell out” her true beliefs to placate a big donor, avoid a primary challenge or cave to pressure from a bigoted segment of the party base.

The problem is, not every compromise is a deviation from principle.

There’s a big difference between ideological rigidity and acting in accordance with principle. It’s a difference that’s invisible to the zealots who see every issue as black and white, every encounter with reality and its inevitable complexities, and every effort to find workable accommodations, a betrayal.

Americans used to understand that it’s better to get half of what you want than none at all. We used to understand that legislation is complicated, and not every description of a bill provided in hysterical internet “alerts” by advocacy groups tells the whole story. We used to recognize that legislation goes through a lengthy process, and that what might have begun  as a step in the right direction might no longer be supportable, even by those who agree with the original intent.

Americans used to understand that issues are complicated, and that we are not well-served by people who refuse to admit or understand that.

And we used to understand that a willingness to blow up Congress and shut down the government in order to get what you want (yes, Ted Cruz, I’m looking at you), or a willingness to cause continuing harm to thousands of people by holding up water system repairs in Flint, Michigan because you don’t believe the federal government should be in the business of providing aid to states (yes, Mike Lee, I’m looking at you) is evidence of grandiosity and disregard for the consequences, not principle.

Effective governance and strategic negotiation aren’t as exciting as grandstanding and moralizing, but we used to understand that we are better served by the former than the latter.


Wishful Thinking Isn’t Foreign Policy

A post-debate column from the Brookings Institution focused on a criticism of Administration foreign policy that is dangerously disconnected from reality in its naivete.

The Republican presidential candidates last night disagreed on many important issues, but on foreign policy, they showed a remarkable unanimity. Together, they presented what boils down to a consensus Republican foreign policy manifesto: “Obama is weak; I am strong.”

As the author notes, the message is simple: favoring diplomacy over force is weakness.

The problem with this very simplistic worldview is front and center in the current debate about the Iran nuclear agreement. Opponents–not all of whom are Republicans, and several of whom should know better (yes, Senator Schumer, I’m looking at you)–routinely fault the agreement as “not good enough,” but fall curiously silent when they are asked to propose alternatives. To date, I have not heard any of them offer a single specific suggestion; when pressed, they say something like “I’d get a better deal,” without explaining what “better” would look like or how they would achieve it.

None of those who are opposed to any deal at all with Iran have said what they would do instead. Implicitly, of course, they are counseling war.

All of the Republican candidates seem intent on ignoring the changes in the world that limit America’s capacity to achieve such dramatic outcomes. America’s military power is second to none, but it has been shown in both the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies to have severe limits in achieving foreign policy outcomes. Overall, particularly since the global financial crisis, power has diffused; strong, new competitors have emerged, and even America’s allies have grown more independent and willful as they have grown in relative power. No presidential act of will can change those stark realities.

Indeed, this was a realization not originally of President Obama, but of President Bush, whose second-term foreign policy looks much more like that of Obama than that articulated by the Republican candidates at the debate. It was George W. Bush after all, humbled by American difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, who started the process of withdrawal from Iraq, began the search for an Iran deal, and chose to respond to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia with sanctions and negotiation. The ideas of preemptive war and unilateral American action were essentially abandoned by the end of the Bush presidency, in fact if not entirely in rhetoric.

The Iran deal is a case in point. It is all well and good to counsel abandoning it on the first day. But, after scrapping the deal, the United States does not have the capacity to reconstruct the international coalition that kept Iran in its box the last 13 years. All of its allies have accepted this deal, and without them there can be no effective effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapon.

There’s a reason thoughtful and knowledgable people–from Dick Lugar and Madelyn Albright to nuclear weapons experts–have strongly endorsed the Iran agreement.

Wishful thinking is not strategy; posturing and self-delusion are not foreign policy. It took an unnecessary and costly war to teach George W. Bush that lesson; we don’t need a repeat performance.