“You Can’t Have Compromise Without Intransigence”; A Shout Out to the Left

in·tran·si·gent (n-trns-jnt, -z-) adj.
Refusing to moderate a position, especially an extreme position; uncompromising.
in·transi·gence n.


There’s been one thing that has always bothered me about democrats, and that is their tendency to walk into legislative negotiations in an already compromised position. As an extreme example, we have gumby Max Baucus’ taking the single payer health care system off the table from the get-go during Senate Finance Committee hearings (and arresting single payer advocates trying to get into the hearing and get their views heard).

More recently, the debt ceiling hostage crisis revealed that democrats were unwilling to enter into the negotiations with as adamant of a stance on revenue increases as republicans were with spending cuts. There’s many, many more, but I’m sure most of you get the point.

The title of this post seems to point to a contradiction, that most of the grownups in the room seem to believe that intransigence negates the possibility of compromise. But however unlikely it seems, I agree with Ross Douthat on this point.

I have been lambasted over the years for my seeming intransigence, and have garnered many labels meant to deprecate the positions I have taken: “principled left”; “emoprog”; “extremist”; “ecoterrorist” and the list goes on. But I think that the intransigence of the “principled left” is the missing ingredient in dems negotiating stances that have them capitulating to the right every step of the way. It is needed now more than ever as a balance to the tea party’s notion of what is politically acceptable.

Politics is the art of the possible. When one side employs intransigence as a strategy, either the other side gets up to speed, or they’re going to get steamrolled. Of course, that assumes that they aren’t in on the steamrolling in the first place. But that’s fodder for others.

This weekend saw a firestorm of punditry about the state of the presidency and the dem party rising out of the failed debt ceiling negotiations by democrats in D.C., beginning with Drew Weston’s Op-Ed in the NY Times, “What Happened to Obama?”

But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.

Then of course, the handwringers and apologists had to jump into the fray, rushing to Obama’s and democrats’ defense, as Jonathan Chait at The New Republic did so aptly in “Drew Westen’s Nonsense”:

There are some strong criticisms to be made of the Obama administration from the left, especially concerning Obama’s passive response to the debt ceiling hostage crisis, and his frightening willingness to give away the store to John Boehner. I’ve made many of these criticisms myself. But Drew Westen’s lengthy, attention-grabbing Sunday New York Times op-ed is not a strong criticism. It’s a parody of liberal fantasizing.

Others attempted to break down the roles of the presidency to make sense of them, as Matt Stoller over at Naked Capitalism attempts to do with “What Presidency?:

“There’s an endless stream of musings on our current political problems, with an attempt to apportion “blame” for what’s going on… This type of dispute reveals an interesting dynamic about the limits of how liberals see government, and in particular, the Presidency…

This comes down to how you see government, and the Presidency. The President is both a symbol of the country and party, monarchical in his ceremonial role. He is also a legislator in that he has use of a very powerful weapon – the veto. And finally, he is the executor of the laws and the commander-in-chief, the wielder of a three trillion dollar budget and enormous military and diplomatic power.”

As an example of Stoller’s depiction of the presidency, his analysis hits the nail on the head in many ways. For example his framework explains why some conservative dry land democrats with “A Muddled Statement of Principles” believe that the presidency has been (or should be) emasculated, and that an all powerful Congress, properly staffed, would do “the will of the people”:

Q. Would President Bachmann please you?

My answer: Yes, IF I could have a Congress that actually represented the will of the people, and was actually capable of accomplishing anything.”

and that the role of the presidency and the executive and judicial branches are subservient to that of Congress. I guess these are the sorts of people that are fixated on Congressional races as the crème de la crème of politics.

I always thought that most traditional democrats would believe that the Separation of Powers created three equal branches of government with systems of checks and balances to prevent any one from assuming what the “will of the people” is and acting unilaterally to get there.

Senator Tester’s reliance on unconstitutional riders in unrelated legislation to delist wolves is a great example of this philosophy, that challenges where the Separation of Powers truly is.

Similarly, tea party republicans could assume that the “will of the people” is for a christian fundamentalist Congress bent on tearing down government to a skeleton of its former self is the desired end state, even if a President Sanders were to get elected. Of course, I have to comment on the idiocy of building an argument around a situation where the country could simultaneously elect a president Bachmann and an overwhelmingly democratic Congress willing and able to override her vetoes.

I might offer that the “will of the people” may best be expressed in the Constitution as a living document, balancing the three branches of government with the populace across the history of this union. But I digress.

Back to intransigence and Douthat. Ross’s advise for democrats is:

“The theme running through all of these arguments is simple enough: If Democrats expect to win political battles in an era of divided government, they need to behave as if winning those battles actually matters to them

But this was why the Paul Ryan budget was so important: Not because it was ever going to become law, but because it suggested that Congressional Republicans were finally serious about achieving what they consider the correct policy outcome on taxes and spending, even if it isn’t the popular one and even if it costs them at the polls. Until Democrats demonstrate a similar seriousness — until they find a way to dig in their heels and hold the economy “hostage” to tax increases the way Republicans just did with spending cuts — the G.O.P. will have no reason to take them seriously as negotiating partners. In the long run, you can’t have compromise without intransigence.

Where are the progressives and democrats waving around The People’s Budget with equal intensity, and forcing the media to take it seriously? You sure don’t find most liberal blogs and news media reporting on it. Why not?

Oh yeah, I forgot. Serious People don’t flaunt their beliefs in public (as if they even believed in The People’s Budget). They must find what they believe to be the political center, and walk into negotiations and advocate that position. Compromise with themselves, so to say, before the real negotiations begin. That’s what grownups do. And if only everybody would act real grownup, they’d find this common political center and everybody could agree to it, and then go golfing.

This is why I have never been afraid to walk up to the negotiating table with my principles and my policies intact, and explicitly on display. It is why I walk into any debate about wilderness legislation with NREPA firmly in hand; or single payer, endangered species and habitat protection, climate change, civil liberties….

And during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, I had such a difficult time with people like Matt Singer who wanted to start negotiations with a public option instead of single payer in order to look reasonable. They were building coalitions around organizations like HCAN with pre-compromised goals destined to be watered down or jettisoned as negotiating tactics, and then supported as a “win”. I finally admitted that I could support a final compromise and bill that included a strong public option, as a good compromise between a private market “universal system” and single payer.

But when you enter negotiations between a weak public option and a private market approach, you get a muddle that might make some progress in a few areas, but is regressive in others. Overall it took many steps in the wrong direction by solidifying in place a failing and weakly regulated private market system as the solution to our health care system’s needs. And that helps to explain why it is now ok to attack Medicaid and Medicare and attempt to push them into private markets too.

Weakness begets weakness. Failure to have and elucidate principles and exhibit intransigence only emboldens the opposition.

So while all of this debate is raging among democrats (and a few seemingly reasonable republicans like Douthat), it applies equally to independents. Especially left wing independents who aren’t looking for politicians to solve their problems, and who actually have solutions to problems and strong principled policies in hand ready to put on the table and negotiate with. To them, politicians are just a means to an end, not the end themselves as many bloggers suggest.

Maybe to assist Douthat’s call for intransigence from dems to counter the tea party’s unwillingness to compromise, democrats could shout out to the left for some gumption. That would be refreshing instead of the relentless tactical hippy punching and name calling in the guise of triangulation and appeasement of the political “center” and its corporate media bullhorns.

  1. ladybug

    The quickest way to end Democrat Party capitulation is to return them to minority status. Without a common enemy, power mongers like Baucus and Obama have no reason to fight their progressive colleagues because they need every vote to prevail while plotting to manuever from minority back into the majority. Once in power, in-charge Democrats quickly forget how they got there. They pounded Bush for 8 long years with good results. Enter the 2009 “prevent defense,” which always changes a game’s momentum. They blew the big lead voters handed to them in 2006 and 2008, and haven’t scored since. Smart teams rebuild from the rubble. Clearly, Democrats seem inclined to give away more before admitting there’s no upside in dealing away every last scrap of their remaining crediblity.

  2. Turner

    J.C., I find very little to argue with in your post, especially the parts about negotiating tactics. As for principles, I get nervous when people start talking about them. Often they’re not about helping ordinary people but tied to abstractions like freedom, honor, and the wisdom of the marketplace. That is, they’re often too abstract to make sense to me or dishonest ways of talking about greed and injustice.

    Back to negotiating tactics: I honestly wish Obama and other Dems had people like you, instead of David Plouffe, advising them. You’d inject some useful intransigence into them. Unfortunately, they probably don’t want you.

    Your essay leaves me with several questions, though.

    Given the facts as you describe them, what do we do next? In Montana, can we elect Democrats who aren’t Blue Dogs? Nationally, can we nominate and elect someone more “principled” than Obama in 2012? Should we turn our backs entirely on the Democratic Party and work for Republicans so Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are not merely threatened but quickly and totally dismantled? Then we could go back to protesting, the mode we’ve been most familiar with since Nixon and Reagan.

    I guess (again admitting the rightness of your views about negotiating) that, unless I’m shown a wiser option, I will remain one of those Democrats who are regularly pilloried at 4& 20 – you know, those guys who curse and moan while settling for the lesser of two evils. I know the leaders of my party are weak and mostly sell-outs. But the leaders of the other party are, not to put too fine a point on it, dangerous fascists.

    I’m an old man. Memories from my childhood of the fascist movements of the 30’s and 40’s are hard to expel. They color almost all my current political views.

    • JC

      I hear you about the principles stuff. I just happen to think we’re better off when people let you know what they are. I have a hard time discerning what principles guide Obama, for instance.

      What to do next? Fight against Citizen’s United however you can. I advocate a Constitutional amendment reserving first amendment rights to flesh-blooded citizens.

      I think a primary for Obama would be a good thing. I’ve written about that elsewhere. And I wouldn’t work for republicans unless they were supporting the issues I find important. But I have a sense, and many others have noted it too, that dems seem to work best in a minority position. Not as good as republicans do, but better than they do in the majority.

      I’m not going to pillory you as a democrat, and you can vote however you want–that’s your right. I don’t care about how you–personally–vote. My dad taught me that voting was a private matter, and we don’t need to disclose how we vote to anyone. Let’s quit making voting personal.

      As to the kinds of candidates we’re getting, that’s the root of the problem. The right has taken the heart out of public service, and fewer and fewer competent people with integrity are entering politics. If electoral politics is going to succeed in America, then we’re going to need a whole new generation of politicians to lead it. Bring civics back into the classroom, i.e.

      You never answered my question elsewhere about how you would proceed to change our political scene through education about the effects of the kinds of legislation we’re seeing. I just don’t happen to think that is going to accomplish much. But if yo can start with a new generation and teach them to think for themselves and that public service is a worthy occupation, and the country is worth saving, then that’s where you start–and it will take decades to pay off. If we don’t do that, then it is all downhill from here.

      As to consulting and working with some dem politicians and candidates, um, I still get calls.

      • Turner

        There’s no single, simple answer to the question you put to me about how to educate people about the effects of bad legislation (perpetrated mainly but not entirely by Republicans). I suspect that part of the education will occur through people’s real-life experiences with the legislation. They won’t need to be taught that they’re hurting.

        I say “won’t need to be taught” because most of the real pain hasn’t even started yet. We’re only beginning to see the effects of massive cuts in social programs, education, and government agencies like the EPA.

        Another possible answer to the question is that we need to educate the politicians heading our party about what the party is supposed to be about. The state’s Democratic Party website seems entirely devoted to attacking Rehberg, a ridiculously easy target. There’s little or nothing on the website about carrying on our party’s honorable history of supporting labor unions or pushing through and sustaining social security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and educational programs like Head Start.

        To put it mildly, I’m not proud of the behavior of the current crop of Democrats. But I’m proud of the party that made it possible for my parents to pull themselves out of poverty and into the lower middle class. I’m proud of the party that made it possible for me to go to college and, in hard times, feed my family using food stamps or commodities.

        Politicians like Baucus need to be educated about our history as a party and how they’re not measuring up. They need to brush up on what the “D” by their names means. If they’re not educable, then they need to flunk and get primaried by real Democrats.

        I’ll be attending the State Democratic Officer and Rules Convention in September. Once again I’ll be bumping heads with Party functionaries – slick young staffers with sparkling careers ahead of them — who don’t want our leaders held accountable. But they can’t completely ignore us old farts who remember the Democratic Party’s best days and want to find some way to bring them back.

  3. Wow. What a spectacular posting.

    One of my larger gripes – for decades now, I’m almost ashamed to admit – has been that Dems won’t lead the debate. They’re always in reactionary mode.

    Reagan used to drive me batshit crazy because he ignored anything lobbed at him and instead lead the debate. It was like he was in his own little world.

    Now we know he was senile, but that’s besides the point – it worked.

    Even with this recent deficit shit sandwich – Reid had a plan and yet he stood around waiting – waiting! – to see where Boehner’s bill was going after its first failed vote. Why? Reid’s plan had rated better – hell if the specifics of any of these proposals were ever really available, even Obama’s plan – and yet he stood around waiting.

    Dumbass. Opportunity lost.

    Obama should have been out there every night making sure he got a 10 second sound bite on the 30-minute evening news telling America that he wasn’t going to allow corporations get $200M tax refunds while cutting into Medicare.

    Dem’s won ’08 because they were able to lead the debate. If it was any one thing, it was healthcare. That election was about healthcare, and they won on that. Yet?

    You summarize the gory outcome.

    Once they get it office, they get meek. They want to fly under the radar. Not rock any boats. Christ – look what they wasted Jan 2009 to Jan 2010. Republicans are right to throw that in our faces. It can only be attributed to weakness.

    No one’s fighting for me. That’s how I feel. I know I’d put up more of a fight – and like you, I wouldn’t be walking into a negotiation asking for less than what I wanted in the first place.

    That’s a no-win situation from the start.

    • ~sigh~

      Reagan didn’t “lead the debate”. We all know now that he suffered from a debilitating mental disease, and I agree that there were consequences. But he kept repeating the same lies, over and over again, and somehow that was “leading the debate”? Reagan was the first to claim boldly that we don’t negotiate with terrorists, and was the first to negotiate with terrorists. He was the first to claim we don’t capitulate to terrorists and did so in the face of the Lebanon Hilton bombing. He constantly supported the myth of lowering taxes and ‘trickle down’ and yet raised tax revenues to increase jobs. The man didn’t lead anything. He just lied enough that people thought he did, and apparently do to this very day. It didn’t “work”, Folk right and left just thought it did, and so we find ourselves enslaved to his legacy of “leadership”.

      • ~sigh~

        But he kept repeating the same lies, over and over again, and somehow that was “leading the debate”?


        He created his own reality in many cases. Iran-Contra comes to mine.

        Now – Obama shouldn’t lie. He should get out there and tell the truth. He should say it over and over again. Congress is in recess – the floor is his. “Eliminate tax breaks for corporations.” Eliminate tax breaks for billionaires” “XYZ corporation got a $X billion refund last year – how much was yours?”

        That’s a start. And that’s leadership – though we weren’t talking about that…we were talking about leading the debate.

        • That smells of contradiction. Reagan lied and was a leader. Yet Obama should not lie and yet be a leader. Congress has been in recess (in fact) for 3 days. Yet we weren’t talking about “that”. We were talking about leading the debate by lying your ass off, and Obama isn’t doing that while he should be telling the truth when leading the debate is, as argued, lying your ass off.

          Does that make any sense at all? I’m not writing that you’re wrong, jhwygirl, no matter how desperately you hope that I am. You’ve no reason to be upset. I’m just writing that you’re not making sense here.

        • For the record …

          I’ve kept a picture of Ronald Reagan in my wallet for 30 years. I want to know what the anti-Christ looks like when I meet him.

  4. it is called horse-trading. any idiot can see that you don’t enter into a negotiation by compromising. you work your way toward a compromise by negotiating.

    democrats appear incapable of understanding this. if i were a democrat it would be embarrassing.

    when a country bumpkin gets skinned over a bad deal once it’s funny. but when it keeps on happening again and again, you just want to look away.

    and these are the fools we entrust to protect the legacy of FDR and JFK?

    they are either too corrupt to see what they are doing anymore or the dumbest sons of bitches this country has ever elected.

  5. Escapee

    The problem appears to be a failure of language. We are not looking at a two-party structure where each side vigorously fights for its interests. That is what confounds people, but the normal rules of compromise and log rolling do not apply. It’s triangulation, and the majority of Americans who hold dear things like SS and Medicare are in the crosshairs. They cannot side with either party, but are in greater danger with Democrats in power, as they are too trusting. As we saw over the weekend, with Lieberman and Panetta doing talking points/trial baloons, the Administration policy now is to gut SS to fund more war spending. Republicans could never get away with that, but the Dems can because the party base is snoozing. Again.

  1. 1 Ineffective Messaging « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] JC had a post a while back – “You Can’t Have Compromise Without Intransigence”; A Shout-Out to the Left – which is one of my more favorite b’bird posts of late due to the subject of messaging. […]

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