How to Win in DC

Negotiating Advice for Republicans

12.10.12 4:00 PM ET

Aesop tells this fable:

A boy put his hand into a jar of filberts and grasped as many as his fist could possibly hold. But when he tried to pull it out again, he found he couldn't do so, for the neck of the jar was too small to allow of the passage of so large a handful. Unwilling to lose his nuts but unable to withdraw his hand, he burst into tears.

A bystander, who saw where the trouble lay, said to him, "Come, my boy, don't be so greedy. Be content with half the amount, and you'll be able to get your hand out without difficulty."

There's the Republican dilemma in, hem, a nutshell.

An effective negotiator begins by posing this question to himself: what am I trying to achieve, what are my priorities 1, 2, 3? Which items are must-haves, on which can I concede?

Then he considers: what does my opposite number want that will matter more to him than it does to me? Can I surrender some lower-ordered priority to gain a higher-ordered priority?

It's especially important to think in this way when your bargaining clout is limited. Somebody in a strong position may be able to say, "I want, I want, I want." Somebody in a weak position - like the congressional GOP now - cannot do so, not successfully anyway.

The Republicans are disadvantaged because they won't make priorities.

If Priority 1 is entitlement reform, that suggests a very different negotiating strategy than if Priority 1 is keeping the top tax rate as low as possible. Some Republican talkers seem not to have any priorities at all: they just want to refuse to deal with the president - which means surrendering any initiative of their own.

For whatever it's worth, here would be my priorities.

1) Preserve the military budget.

2) Preserve the 35% maximum income tax rate.

3) Preserve the 15% rate on capital gains.

I'd yield on the cap-gains rate to preserve the income tax rate; I'd yield on the income-tax rate to avoid a sequester that hit defense.

But I wouldn't yield on any of these points to obtain entitlement reforms, and for these reasons:

1) The presidents wants entitlement reform just as much as the Republicans do. There's no point negotiating for something that your counterpart would do anyway. The Republican self-delusion that Obama wants to build government as an end in itself in fact weakens Republican bargaining power by blinding them to areas where the president already agrees with them.

2) Entitlement reform is a huge project, that involves substantial overhaul of major programs of crucial importance to almost all Americans. It will be achieved only by broad consent, not because one party adopts reform as a party platform.

Finally, in service of my whole larger agenda, I'd be on the hunt to find things that the president and his party want a very great deal - even more than their existing schedule of priorities - in a bid to enhance my negotiating power. That's why this may now be the moment for a carbon tax. Environmentally minded Democrats will want one so much that they'd be prepared to pay a high price for it - including possibly the abandonment of their own current #1 priority, an increase in the top rates.

Plus, as an additional benefit, the tax might stave off a global ecological disaster. Should you happen to care.