Conciliation is not a Strategy for Compromise

“That’s the funny thing about ceasing to compromise in public. It can make it more likely that you actually get a compromise in private.” — Ezra Klein, Washington Post


Wonkblog’s Ezra Klein hit on something today that I have been harping about consistently over the years. And that is how a politician goes about compromising. Or maybe it is better said, how a politician goes about signaling his willingness to compromise, and how that compromise may be structured:

During the debt-ceiling negotiations, the Obama administration offered the Republicans two concessions that Democrats really didn’t like: A cut to Social Security, through a mechanism known as “chained-CPI,” and a lift in Medicare’s eligibility age. The administration was expected to make both concessions part of the debt-reduction package it plans to announce next week. Now, it looks as if neither item will appear in the final plan. And the reason why is best explained by comparing two New York special elections that went very, very differently for the Democrats.

Andy Hammond thought he was being smart by bringing up the Dem’s loss of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s seat in a special election on tuesday. Well, of course, there is an example of republicans similarly losing a seat recently in an upstate NY district that was heavily republican in a special election. Both incumbents were caught in sex scandals. Both were in districts that were heavily weighted in their favor. So why did both incumbent parties lose?

Well, the republican lost because the dem successfully ran against the Ryan budget plan, and its goal of killing Medicare as we know it, while cutting taxes for the rich. On why the dem lost in NY City, Klein had this to say:

“He [the republican] wasn’t supposed to win that election. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to come particularly close. But Democrats had long ago lost whatever clarity of message the Ryan budget had handed them, and the Obama administration’s endless negotiating during the debt deal, far from making them appear the only reasonable adults in the room, had simply underscored the perception that the president was unable to lead Washington at a moment that desperately called for strong leadership.”

I’ve maintained hard fast rules in my opposition to precompromising one’s position when entering into legislative negotiations, even going so far recently as to advocate intransigience. I learned my lessons young watching the early days of compromising over wilderness legislation–what I called the crumbling cookie approach. Once everybody gets their share of the cookie, there’s nothing but crumbs left for the original intent–wilderness designation. Hence my work on, and support for legislation like NREPA that advocates for the values that we support: protecting all roadless areas from being released from protected status.

This failure of compromise was readily seen in the fight over health care reform when single payer was taken off the table, and the debate swung way to the right, basically passing a structure advocated by republicans in the 90’s. What leverage the dems had was single-handedly swept away by a master gumby conciliator, Max Baucus. The legislative process was further weakened by the efforts of other conciliators like HCAN. Unfortunately, there are those who still think that process trumps principles and substance in an era of rightwing intransigence. But I digress, C’est la vie.

Klein finally makes the connection between electoral results in the two recent special elections and Obama’s sudden about face on being the adult in the room with a conciliatory compromise ready to go:

“The Obama administration got to test its postpartisan approach and in its first real electoral test, it failed. Republicans refused to cut the deal, voters weren’t interested in parsing reports about which backroom players offered what concessions, and the impression of Obama as a weakened leader without a clear plan for dealing with the economic crisis solidified…

The White House was joining with [republicans] in proposing unpopular entitlement cuts and talking about deficits rather than jobs, but they weren’t getting the grand compromise that they needed to show voters that compromising was an effective form of presidential leadership.”

Well, duh. That’s what us emoprogs have been telling the pragprogs all along. Being a conciliator when republicans are nothing more than a swarm of piranha looking for red meat is a recipe for disaster and electoral defeat.

I’ve been repeatedly accused of being too strident. But that’s because I learned my lesson years ago in the wilderness battle trenches. I understand that compromise is the path to legislative success. I just don’t happen to believe that political leaders should signal their starting position as being one that unilaterally moves the goalposts to the right. Afterall that is what the right already does: rightward ho! When’s the last time anyone has ever heard a republican offering up a compromise position to the left outside of a last minute legislative battle?

If dems want to have a breath of a chance at electoral victory next year, then they’re going to have to pay attention to what is going on. Otherwise, we are going to have another 8-year experiment in republican intransigence, and judging by the Bush years and its aftermath, it won’t be pretty. Actually, it’d be quite catastrophic.

Klein sums up this whole notion quite succinctly:

“That’s the funny thing about ceasing to compromise in public. It can make it more likely that you actually get a compromise in private.”

And it would quit pissing off the lefties as much, too.

If dems want to turn around this national debacle of politics in the face of what will inevitably be called America’s modern Depression, then they need to remember what it is that dems represent, and stand up for it.

Unfortunately, many think the die has been cast, and the possibility of a reformist movement in the dem party to the left and back to their roots will never happen. What may arise out of the political and economic ashes of the early 21st century decline of America remains to be seen. But many already are making plans that make y2k preparations look like a walk in the park.

I wonder if Obama is rethinking his decision to appoint Jim Messina as his reelection chief, yet???

  1. This was so good JC i posted it to my FB. I’m no big Ezra fan but you pulled the red meat out of it succinctly and clearly.
    i would add that we wouldn’t be here if Pelosi had adhered to the US Constitution and put the Bush Crime Family up for investigation ~ though we know thru their arrogance they are guilty of War Crimes and misdemeanors. Compromise the Constitution and HERE we are.
    Be that as it may Compromise before the negotiations is what a Neo-liberal does. ObamaNationInc is that entity. He is not a leader just a player/dealer.
    You nailed Baucus but he was a prompted (by Obama) tool to stop Single Payer ~ off the table! Messina like his boss is nothing more than the lowest of life forms – a mercenary one rung above T-klaners/Repugs.

  2. Is there a major policy disaster in the past 15 years that Mad Max hasn’t left his finger prints on? 2001 tax cuts, Medicare prescription drug benefit, ACA. Smart money is on the Senator from Georgetown to be the D sellout on the debt cmte.

  3. Steve W

    I have my own hypothesis as to why the Democrats lost a house seat in Brooklyn/Queens they have held since 1920.

    My guess is the polls were correct. Anthony Weiner’s constituents didn’t want him to resign. When the Democratic Party honchos forced Wiener to resign, people weren’t ready to get out and support the Honchos.

    It was a referendum on whether the Democratic Party should have forced Weiner to resign, or not. The people said, “Not!”

    • lizard19

      i wouldn’t be surprised if that played some part in this shocker.

      when that whole thing was going down i remember wondering if maybe Weiner was planning on breaking containment, so “party leaders” took the opportunity his scandal presented to boot him before he made his move.

    • Most of the major political analysts are claiming that the actual reason the election went Republican is that the Republican Candidate was fairly successful making the election about Obama. Since that district is currently experiencing hard times and since Obama’s promise of “Change” hasn’t materialized, the R candidate translated that unrest into a referendum on Obama politics. I tend to agree with that analysis. Unless the Obama administration can be successful in addressing the general unrest in the Country, Dems in general are going to have issues with elections in 2012 – not because they are Dems, but because the general voter is angry and looking to vent on someone. The Republicans have always been best at using negative situations to thier advantage and if they are as successful doing that next year as the R Candidate was in New York, things could get much, much worse for the Dems next year.

      • Steve W

        I agree with you about what the major media political analysis is, Moorcat, i just don’t agree with the analysis. It’s my experience that the major media misses the story a lot. So I don’t find this particular occurrence surprising.

        This is the same media that just a few weeks back reported that a solid majority of New York’s registered voters thought Anthony Weiner should stay in congress and keep representing his district. They weren’t mad at Weiner, a Democrat. They liked him, they elected him.

        i think since Obama weighed in against Wiener by calling him ‘a distraction’ that Democratic voters just sat home or voted Republican.

        When your own people won’t come together and stand by you in tough times, it’s easy to feel betrayed and to then act on those feelings of betrayal.

        My analysis is that Obama and the Democratic leadership in the house may have shot themselves in the foot by publicly forcing out Weiner.

        The only thing I don’t know is if there is more to the story that never came out but that would have surfaced if Weiner hadn’t resigned. In that case, I’d make my caricaturization of the Democratic leaderships’ action less critical and more of a between a rock and a hard place kind of event.

        Here’s a quote from an article at the Daily Beast

        “Several district voters feel that had Anthony Weiner not been forced to resign by the Democratic House leadership, it would have been a no-contest win for Weiner over Turner. One Weprin volunteer working a Forest Hills polling site said of Weprin, “Some people say he’s not charismatic enough. Well, you know what the situation is. We liked Anthony Weiner.”


At Turner’s Howard Beach victory party, New York state GOP leader Ed Cox and U.S. Rep. Peter King, the latter of whom had driven to Howard Beach straight off a plane from London, brushed off questions about Crowley’s role in the defeat. “This is a win for Bob Turner and Ed Koch and a terrible defeat for Obama,” said King, as early precincts began reporting Turner in the lead.”

        I can certainly see why Democratic Party spokespersons aren’t pushing the meme that they shot themselves in the foot for forcing out Weiner for the “No sex sex scandle” and I can see why the Republicans are pushing the “Referendum on Obama” meme. I just don’t see how the papers can routinely miss the stories except that the story doesn’t have an agent to catapult the propaganda the way the Dems and Repos do.

  4. The first two years that the Obama regime was in power he held complete control, offered no compromises, shoved legislation like Obamacare down Americas throat, and just 10 months ago the voters bitch-slapped Obama for it, and the two special elections Tuesday simply are a preview of 2012 when the voters finish the job.

    Politics is like a pendulum, swinging back & forth, and Obama/Reid/Pelosi have it still swinging right.

    It’s not about compromises, it’s about The Great Leader and his regime.

    • What? Wait.

      He offered no compromises? Held complete control?

      What alternate universe are you on?

      • OK jhwygirl – I keep forgetting to make it simple over here –

        For the first two years of his (Obama’s) regime, he had majorities in both branches of the legislature, and could pass anything he wished (Obamacare for one) without a single GOP vote, and without anybody even konowing what was in it.

        So there were no compromises.

        When he was elected, he was touted as the post-racial, post-partisan, great uniter, and thus far all he has done is separate the Congress into armed camps, more polarized than ever.

        Now that Obama was bitch-slapped (repudiated) by the voters, and his majorities evaporated, he is having an even harder time, because payback is a bitch. If he was truly the gifted compromiser, he would have known better than to make so many enemies.

        • no eric. failing to compromise was not obama’s problem. failing to do what the majority of americans wanted has doomed both parties. corporate profits are at record levels. the wealthy 5% in this country are getting wealthier while the middle class and the poor just get poorer.

          both parties are failing the majority of americans by compromising with corporations who pay them to do so.

          people like you who still believe their party will save them are the ones who are blind.

        • Democrats had majorities in both chambers of Congress, but liberals did not have working majorities in either chamber. In the House, the Blue Dogs were DINOs. In the Senate, there were the likes of Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson.

          Obama therefore tried to buy off the opposition with policy concessions. It seemed to me that sometimes he offered concessions his opponents had yet to think of. In response, his opponents kept moving the goalposts back to prevent his scoring, thus ensuring his public humiliation (which he seemed to welcome).

          Obama didn’t create the polarization. He simply failed to recognize it or acknowledge it. The camps were armed before he took office, and the Republican camp had moved far, far to the right and become an Ayn Rand worshipping cult of nihilists hellbent on blowing up the economy in the belief that out of the wreckage a libertarian utopia would emerge. Confronted with that reality, Obama shrugged when he should have slugged.

          Obama finally seems to have learned that in politics, turning the other cheek results in two black eyes and a sure opportunity to deliver a concession speech. No other president has learned this lesson so slowly. And it remains to be seen whether he has learned it well enough to earn re-election.

          • meanwhile Obama’s sycophants continue to advise him to ignore americans who work for a living so that they can continue grovelling for cash from wall street tycoons.

            there’s your precious political process at work….. and process servers like obama’s campaign chairman, jim messina, are so out of touch with the voters of this country that i see little hope of turning it around unless obama heeds the advice of james carville who advised the president to fire his staff and start over…..

            “This is what I would say to President Barack Obama: The time has come to demand a plan of action that requires a complete change from the direction you are headed.
            I don’t know how else to break this down. Simply put:
            1. Fire somebody. No — fire a lot of people. This may be news to you but this is not going well. For precedent, see Russian Army 64th division at Stalingrad. There were enough deaths at Stalingrad to make the entire tea party collectively orgasm.
            Obama: America can’t ‘wait 14 months’ Branson: Obama’s timing is off Obama: If you love me, help pass bill
            Mr. President, your hinge of fate must turn. Bill Clinton fired many people in 1994 and took a lot of heat for it. Reagan fired most of his campaign staff in 1980. Republicans historically fired their own speaker, Newt Gingrich. Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. For God’s sake, why are we still looking at the same political and economic advisers that got us into this mess? It’s not working.
            Furthermore, it’s not going to work with the same team, the same strategy and the same excuses. I know economic analysts are smart — some work 17-hour days. It’s time to show them the exit. Wake up — show us you are doing something.
            2. Indict people. There are certain people in American finance who haven’t been held responsible for utterly ruining the economic fabric of our country. Demand from the attorney general a clear status of the state of investigation concerning these extraordinary injustices imposed upon the American people. I know Attorney General Eric Holder is a close friend of yours, but if his explanations aren’t good, fire him too. Demand answers to why no one has been indicted.
            Mr. President, people are livid. Tell people that you, too, are angry and sickened by the irresponsible actions on Wall Street that caused so much suffering. Do not accept excuses. Demand action now.
            3. Make a case like a Democrat. While we are going along with the Republican austerity garbage, who is making the case against it? It’s not the Democrats!
            We are allowing the over-educated, over-explanatory bureaucrat by the name of (Congresssional Budget Office director Douglas) Elmendorf do all the talking. Do not let him make your case. Let us make your case. Is it any wonder that we were doing better in the middle of the stimulus-spending period than we are doing with the austerity program?
            4. Hold fast to an explanation. Stick to your rationale for what has happened and what is going to happen under your leadership. You must carry this through until the election (never say that things are improving because evidently they are not).
            As I watch the Republican debates, I realize that we are on the brink of a crazy person running our nation. I sit in front of the television and shudder at the thought of one of these creationism-loving, global-warming-denying, immigration-bashing, Social-Security-cutting, clean-air-hating, mortality-fascinated, Wall-Street-protecting Republicans running my country.
            The course we are on is not working. The hour is late, and the need is great. Fire. Indict. Fight.”

  5. lizard19

    great post JC.

    maybe the administration will get lucky, and something serious will happen abroad, like the growing tensions between Israel and Turkey erupting and blowing the lid off the middle east.

    no one will pay attention to the unemployment rate if the world war that’s perpetually simmering really heats up.

  6. both parties are destroying this country. if one good candidate who represents the majority of americans- rather than the corporate sponsored party- steps forward between now and 2012, i predict a big shock for those who serve the process.

    the two party process no longer serves the people. it is time to let washington dc know that we mean business. all we need is one decent person to step up and declare enough is enough. it is time that government of the people, by the people and for the people start representing those who vote for them, rather than those who line their pockets.

  7. Carfreestupidity

    Smoke filled backroom deals… Wez need more.

  8. Ingemar Johansson

    Did Castro compromise? Lenin/Stalin?

    How ’bout Hilter, Pol Pot, Mao?

    This ain’t a dictatorship.

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