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Obamacare and the GOP’s Negotiation Crisis

Shall We All Hang Separately?

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Should Congressional Republicans (1) fight to completely defund Obamacare, putting the brakes not only on its immediate implementation but also on any efforts to plan for its future implementation, (2) fight to delay implementation of the individual mandate and/or other provisions (following the Administration’s lead in delaying the employer mandate, or (3) leave the issue alone and focus on other elements of the budget? What tactics should the GOP use: should it hold up the next continuing resolution, creating the threat of a government shutdown? Tie it to the next debt ceiling fight?

I have tried, with mixed success, to steer clear of this inside-baseball tactical debate, which has generated an outsized amount of acrimony within the Beltway GOP and the conservative movement alike. The pro-defund caucus has been accused, not without reason but with a lot of unfair ad hominems, of being unrealistic in its expectations and misleading the grassroots into a losing battle. The anti-defund caucus, formally aligned mostly behind the “delay” solution, has been accused, not without reason but with a lot of unfair ad hominems, of being spineless, afraid of its own shadow, and in some cases actively scheming to keep Obamacare alive.

For a flavor of the arguments, see Ben Howe on the fear of defeat driving the don’t-defund side, Drew M. on the grassroots’ lack of trust in the leadership, Erick on why this is a “read my lips” moment for GOP leadership’s credibility, the Wall Street Journal on why the leadership thinks the grassroots and the backbenchers have lost their minds, Avik Roy on the argument for replacing rather than repealing Obamacare as part of a larger entitlement reform strategy, and Robert Costa on how the fight is energizing conservative pro-defund groups. Ben Domenech, in this morning’s Transom newsletter (an indispensable read on this issue), reviewed the “delay” options and concluded:

I remain unconvinced that any of these approaches are any smarter or more likely to succeed than the somehow “more radical” defunding approach, and I think it’s a bit silly to expect GOPers who won’t hold the line on a government shutdown to hold the same line on risking default. I do share the belief that fighting for delay is always more realistic (and polls better) than defunding, and that a debt ceiling fight reflects more on the president than the Congress (where the reverse is true of a CR), but it also makes sense to open any conflict with defunding, because you’re only going to move backwards from there. After all, you are a Republican.

In any case, this is all pointless and irrelevant: Republicans on Capitol Hill, in leadership or in the conservative wing, are seeking a point of leverage that does not exist. The president would like nothing better than to force a government shutdown and benefit from both the immediate backlash and the inevitable Republican cave. This is true of the CR or the debt ceiling, defund or delay, however you want to approach it. Arguing that one untenable position is savvy and politically intelligent while the other untenable position is crazy or ideologically treacherous is something Republicans have made something of a science in recent years…For as intransigent as the media paints them, you’d think they’d do a better job of it.

There are valid points being made on both sides here, and I’m probably more where Ben is than anything. The issue of trust is pervasive, and a lot of the ire in this fight is a proxy for other longstanding grievances on the Right. It seems to me that we have a fundamental set of internal disagreements on the essentials of how negotiation works in politics, and rather than wade into the weeds, it’s worth stepping back to consider those essentials.

1. Know Your Bottom Line: As I noted during the last fiscal cliff showdown, it’s essential to enter a negotiation knowing what turf you can feasibly defend, what you can’t, what you’re willing to retreat on and where you will stand and fight. You need to game those things out in advance, understanding that once you begin a fight, the other side gets a say and all the dynamics that have led to the resolution of prior legislative battles will come to the fore again. You go to war, as they say, with the leadership you have: what is important is to know how realistic it is that these Republicans will hold the lines they have chosen.

2. Unity Wins: Too much emphasis is placed on which side’s leadership intends to hold out longer. Leadership is important, and can do a lot to influence rank-and-file members – but a negotiating position is only as strong as its weakest link. And with two Houses of Congress to deal with, even committed leadership on one side isn’t enough. That means that not only does John Boehner need to know how many people in his caucus are ready to hold out to the bitter end for a particular result, he also needs to know how much support he has in the Senate; if he starts out knowing that Mitch McConnell and Senate leadership aren’t up for a tactic, he will be swiftly isolated and outmaneuvered. There’s an inherent advantage in having the White House, because even a weak President still presents a more unified face than Congress. The inability of either the delay or defund side to coalesce into a single strategy suggests that neither starts off in a strong negotiating position.

3. You Have To Convince The Other Side. All the brave talk in the world about Republicans not blinking is no use unless the Democrats can be convinced to blink first. And nobody seems to have a plan to make that happen. First of all, the long history of Republicans caving in fiscal showdowns means that Democrats enter any negotiation with morale high and confident of victory; there must be a plan to change that. Second, the hubris of national Democrats certain of a permanent demographic majority is hard to puncture these days – vulnerable 2014 Democrats in Congress may fear polling showing the deep unpopularity of Obamacare and even some public support for a shutdown, but history shows that the White House is disinclined to listen to them even though the August 2011 debt ceiling fight was the lowest point of President Obama’s approval ratings. And third, the institutional memory of the 1995 government shutdown has left Democrats convinced that they will always see their political prospects improved by budgetary brinksmanship. These are realities that any strategy must take into account.

4. The Voters Get A Say: In a back-room negotiation, there’s something to be said for being stubborn, as well as for starting off with an unreasonable opening demand and falling back to where you want to be. But inevitably, both sides here are trying to convince the public to take their side – and perceived voter movement will influence the outcome. That means that there’s a lot to be said for starting off with a demand that seems more reasonable in the first place, although one could also make the case in some circumstances for taking a harder initial stance and then making a great show of compromising.

5. Perception Trumps Reality: Related to the prior point: one reason disputes over polling are so hotly contested is because much of the ability to win fights on Capitol Hill is driven, not by actual public opinion, but by its appearance. Expect pollsters to craft the phrasing of their questions, and their choices of which polls to release publicly, with that in mind.

6. Sometimes, You Fight To Lose: This is perhaps the biggest thing motivating the intensity of the debate over defunding. The strongest position in a negotiation is actually the position of entering a fight you are willing to lose. Pro-defund conservatives see themselves as playing a long game to change how Congress does business, so they see a losing fight as beneficial in the long run. GOP Senate leaders focused on recapturing the Senate are looking only to what plays best in 2014. Anti-defund conservatives are worried about burning out the grassroots base with yet another failure. The biggest divide is not what we expect to win, but what we’re willing to lose.

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