Much of this might sound familiar, but consider the source. James Baker was Ronald Reagan’s first chief of staff. Later he served as Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury.
He counts as one of the more respected of the Washington “wise men.”
For you edification, I offer Tony Blair’s impression of a negotiation he, a leader of a British parliamentary delegation, undertook with Baker in 1985. Baker was then Secretary of the Treasury. The subject was double taxation, which occurs, Blair explained: “when two nations both claim to be able to tax the same economic activity.”
I knew nothing about Jim, but it was decided that I would be the one to make our case to him and give the Treasury Secretary a good tough talking-to. Like the diligent lawyer I then was, I mugged up on the facts, became an overnight expert on double taxation and was duly thrown into the fray, the flight over on the Concorde having boosted my sense of my own importance.
Then Blair reported on the negotiations:
I came out of the meeting feeling a little like a boxer who had been told that the fight was fixed and the other guy would go down in the second round, only to find he was in the ring with Rocky Marciano and no one had told him about the deal. Jim was focused, on top of the detail, erudite, answered my points one by one, threw in a few of his own, took my warnings of tough action and exposed them as a series of paper tigers and sent me out of there reeling and seeing stars. Above all, he was smart. What I learned that day is that Americans can be really, really clever.
This is to say that when it comes to high-level negotiations, Baker is a master. Since the current occupant of the White House and the current majority leader of the Senate have refused to negotiate—neither of them seem to know how to do it, at all-- it is worth listening to what Baker has to say.
Peggy Noonan called him and reports his thoughts in her Wall Street Journal column today.
Noonan quotes Baker:
The political problem: The president is failing to lead. His refusal to negotiate with Republicans over spending and the debt limit is "an obstinate position, it's not a leadership position." The Republicans made a mistake early on with a "maximalist" position on ObamaCare—they could not realistically achieve their aim of defunding when the Democrats hold the White House and Senate. But the president's position is a "pretty damn maximalist position itself, and people will say that."
Presidents, he notes, always negotiate in order to get an increase in the debt limit—it’s their job. "It's a failure of leadership to say, 'I'm just gonna sit here while the government remains closed,' or, with respect to the debt limit, 'I'll sit here and not negotiate and the catastrophic consequences I warned you of will just have to happen.' . . . He has the burden of moving forward. He's the leader of the country. He has to get the debt limit raised to avoid default."
Of course, Republicans bear some responsibility too. Noonan reports:
"I don't think it was a very wise strategy for we Republicans to say we would not fund the government unless we defunded ObamaCare. I don't think that's a smart political strategy, and I think we'll pay a price for it. . . . If you're gonna make your stand, make your stand on something you can accomplish." When he worked for Reagan, he'd come back from a negotiation saying, "I think we can get this," and it was never all the president wanted. "Reagan would say, 'I'd rather get 80% of what I want than go over the cliff with my flag flying.'"
As nearly everyone knows, to lead is to negotiate:
He [Baker] returns to the leadership problem: "When a president doesn't control both sides of Congress he has to deal with the other party. Ronald Reagan did it almost every day with Tip O'Neill." Nonnegotiation is bad politics. "Suppose we get past this budget debate and Oct. 17 get into a fight on the debt limit. I'm not certain the American people would not penalize the administration."
What should President Obama do? Own it. Lead. "Leading would be call [Speaker John] Boehner in: 'All right, this is a sorry situation for our country. Come on here and let's talk about resolving it.'" In this negotiation they should first explore an agreement on getting rid of the special provisions for Congress. Second, they could move to come to agreement on eliminating the medical device tax.
"Resolve this thing by getting into a room and making the government work. The leader of our government should be willing to get into a room and sit down with the opposition."
Democratic leaders are unwilling to negotiate because they believe that the politics plays in their favor:
Why doesn't Mr. Obama do this? Baker spoke of "obstinacy" and political calculation. "This White House thinks it's got a bird's nest on the ground because we Republicans overreached when we said defund ObamaCare." The president thinks this works for him. "He could turn out to be right, and he could turn out to be wrong." Democrats "think this is a great political strategy. I'm not sure it is if it continues too long, particularly if it segues into the debt limit and he doesn't negotiate." The White House meeting of the president and Congressional leaders Wednesday night does not qualify as a negotiation. "They didn't do anything but parrot their respective positions."
As of now, the Democrats are winning and the Republicans are losing. Baker still holds out hope for the Republicans:
A sound strategy for the Republicans going forward would involve a shift in public perception. People will see the issue one way when they believe House Republicans are unwilling to pass a budget because of ObamaCare. When people see the issue as the president refusing to negotiate with House Republicans on the issue of the debt limit, things will change. The president's refusal to negotiate "could change the political calculus, the more so the longer it goes. . . . My political antennae tell me when the debate becomes the failure of our leader to negotiate . . . the mood of the country could flip." That would look like a true "abdication of leadership."
As I said, this might sound repetitious, but I am astonished that some people do not understand that leadership is negotiation. In fact, most social life involves some level of negotiation. Those who prefer confrontation to compromise often end up in conflict only with themselves.