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How Democrats Can Get to Yes

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Google is a pretty amazing thing. The other day I was thinking about the government-shutdown mess and how it might be resolved, despite the element in the Republican Party, and specifically on Capitol Hill, that remains committed to extending the shutdown as a reasonable tactic in the war on big government. Most other Republicans, deep down, have real misgivings about all this, and know it's not the way to settle disputes. Sure, members of this second group view the Affordable Care Act as horrific policy with the potential to damage the economy and cost jobs, but they don't see shuttering the government or refusing to raise the debt ceiling as a reasonable strategy. These Republicans are backed into a corner, though. If their party's base perceives them as caving in to President Obama's demands, they are sure to be accused of lacking principle and capitulating to a president whom some see as just short of the devil. They would likely face a conservative challenge in their next election.

At the same time, too many Democrats seem to be enjoying this debacle, appearing to view the fight as a terrific political opportunity to inflict some real damage on the Republican Party. It certainly looks as if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a boxer in his early years, thinks he has his foot on the throat of House Speaker John Boehner and the GOP and is not interested in taking it off. Stories that Reid insisted on keeping Vice President Joe Biden away from key meetings reinforce this view; the majority leader apparently sees Biden as too willing to cut a deal and forge a compromise.

Right or wrong, this is how I was seeing things, and I began wondering how a skilled negotiator might deal with such an impasse. When I was young, whenever I would ask a complicated question, my mom or dad would always tell me to "look it up in the encyclopedia." So I turned to its modern-day equivalent, Google, typing in "Government shutdown expert negotiation." The very first article that popped up was a fantastic Oct. 3 column by Jena McGregor, in her WashingtonPost.com feature On Leadership. McGregor, a former editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, quoted five conflict-resolution experts, starting with William Ury, cofounder of Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation, who has been involved in disputes ranging from corporate mergers and coal-mining strikes to ethnic wars abroad. Ury, the coauthor of the book Getting to Yes, says, "There is a power struggle going on," and adds, "The question is, how is this power struggle going to be resolved?"

The experts, in McGregor's words, made three major points: "This is likely to get worse before it gets better. The president might choose not to negotiate on his core principles, but he'll still have to find a way to let Republicans save face. And even if you're dealing with hostage-takers, there's still room to talk."

It was the second point that really resonated with me. If your intent is to decimate your opposition and win at all costs, that's one thing. But if your intention is to resolve a conflict that has enormous consequences for our national economy and finances, you have to give your opposition a place to land, a way to settle and save face.

McGregor makes an important point: "Right now, however bad the shutdown may be for many people, neither Democratic [nor] Republican leaders yet feel immediate pain from the fallout. Democrats know the polls show that Republicans are getting hit worse by the government's closure. And Republicans aren't yet getting heat from constituents for their hard-line positions. But at some point, a showdown—or worse, the potential of a disastrous default—could become so painful that it drives people to the negotiation table." 

The disclosures earlier this week that families of military personnel killed in Afghanistan might not be getting the immediate death benefits owed to them, including money for funeral expenses, could help spark the necessary citizen outrage.

One of the things that helped precipitate the showdown is that many Democrats refuse to acknowledge that the enormous and hugely complicated health care law actually might have problems that need to be legislatively addressed. One Democratic House member told me a couple of months ago that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had made it very clear to her members that she did not want to hear any talk of cracking open the Affordable Care Act to address some of its shortcomings. Polls have consistently shown that while some Americans steadfastly want Obamacare repealed and others want to keep it exactly the way it is, a plurality want to see it—choose a word—repaired, fixed, or modified. Yet few on Capitol Hill, on either side, seem willing to utter those words.

McGregor turned to Robert Mnookin, the director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project and author ofBargaining With the Devil: When to Negotiate and When to Fight. Mnookin goes straight to this point: "The obvious deal, if I were to make a prediction, is for there to be a clean budget and a clean extension done simultaneously with an agreement that there's going to be some bipartisan approach to improving the health care law." But he then asks, "How can Obama credibly commit to being flexible to considering changes? It's clear he's not going to make changes that are going to gut it."

Somehow, though, Obama and congressional Democrats have to give Republicans, at least the ones who want to resolve this—and I would put Boehner in that category, regardless of what he has said in recent days—a place to land, some way to get to yes.

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