According to a new book by Robert Draper, a group of Republican leaders got together on Barack Obama’s inauguration day 2009 and hatched a plan to oppose and obstruct anything the new administration would put forward. Republican House member Kevin McCarthy supposedly said, “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.” At the end of this meeting, Newt Gingrich told the group they would remember this day. “You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”
Some reports have said the revelations about this secret meeting are not exactly news. No matter. It’s still important to keep in mind what lots of other evidence tells us: before the details of a single plan by the new president were known, leading Republicans had already decided it was in their strategic interest to try to block anything the administration proposed. President Obama never had an opposition that was willing to work with him at all. Their game plan all along was to portray anything he suggested as radical and unacceptable. And this is exactly what we have seen unfold in the last three years. Even if President Obama suggested something that a substantial number of Republicans had favored the previous week, they were all against it as soon as he supported it. Vociferously and unalterably and nearly unanimously against it.
The president’s opponents can claim a fair amount of success from this strategy. For one thing, they succeeded, among a substantial part of the electorate, in portraying the Obama administration as radical and extremist. They were also able to blame the president for creating a more divisive, partisan atmosphere in Washington, even though he had promised to reduce partisanship and divisiveness. The president’s opponents obtained tangible results from this strategy in the 2010 elections, which ushered in a wave of even more intransigent Republican members of Congress. In business negotiations, we also sometimes see the intransigent party getting more of what they want than the party that is eager to negotiate. On the other hand, parties who take positions that are too unreasonable also risk not getting any deal at all, and those failures may cost them more.
The president’s critics from the left argue that it was a mistake for the Obama administration to go to as much trouble as it did to tailor its economic and other proposals to try to attract support from across the aisle. Since the Republicans were never going to work with this president anyway, he should have tried to push forward a more
progressive agenda, instead of continuing to portray himself as willing to find common ground with the opposition, goes this theory.
So how does one deal with an opponent who has adopted a strategy of complete intransigence? Following the critics on the left, President Obama could have adopted an equally intransigent attitude himself. Had he done that, however, Obama would have made the Republican opposition look justified. The administration also might have gotten less of its agenda through Congress. Instead, the Obama team tried to make the case, especially since the midterm elections, that they were the reasonable party, and thereby exposed the opposition’s game. The Republicans in Congress were embarrassed into opposing some pretty popular ideas, like cutting payroll tax cuts, closing tax advantages enjoyed by the rich, and providing access to contraception, and were several times forced to cave altogether when they refused to make a deal.
Negotiation theory, such as the work by Fisher and Ury, tells us that even if we are dealing with an adversary who is not willing to negotiate in good faith, or at all, that does not necessarily mean we should give up on negotiating altogether and declare war on that adversary. There are still techniques available to persuade even the most unreasonable opponent that reaching a negotiated agreement that serves their interests better than no agreement. The Obama administration employed many of those techniques, particularly in the budget negotiations of 2011, and wound up with an agreement, albeit one that cost the administration some support from the left, and that the Republicans are now trying to walk away from. Those negotiations showed, however, that when parties must make a deal, as the parties needed to do in order to prevent a national default, even a party that has announced in advance its intention never to agree to anything the other side suggests, still ends up having to accept some of their proposals.
The 2012 election will provide the ultimate test for whether the Republican strategy of obstruction has succeeded or failed. President Obama has stated publicly his hope that if he is re-elected, enough Republicans will decide to work with him that his second term will go smoother. And Governor Romney must hope that if he wins, he will not face the kind of intransigence from the Democrats that his party employed the last four years.