Yours truly having negotiated scores of contracts in various venues over the years, it is easy to recognize that House Speaker, John Boehner, really bungled as a bargainer in his recent failed attempt to push his ‘Plan B’ in the fiscal cliff negotiations a few days ago.
As Washington Post political commentator, Charlie Cook, observed in the aftermath of the collapse of Plan B, in Washington DC, it appears “the art of negotiation has been lost…these people don’t know how to negotiate”. How true.
There are at least three major axioms of negotiation that Boehner violated in his recent attempt to push Plan B and leave Obama on the defensive over the Xmas holidays.
First axiom: Never tackle the toughest or biggest (i.e. costliest) issue first in negotiations. Settle the smaller issues first and leave the big item to last; then settle the big stuff by horse-trading the most important thing you want for the most important thing your opponent wants. Boehner did the opposite. He addressed the big tax hike issue—the Bush tax cut for the top 2% from the outset. In Plan B, he in effect asked his base to agree to a tax hike in mid-stream of negotiations and when doing so would not have concluded the negotiations.
Second axiom: Never negotiate in one direction. Boehner focused on Obama and not on his base. Bargaining is always dual in nature. There’s your opponent and there’s your own supporters. Boehner lost sight of his base. From what is now leaking out in the press, it appears he somewhat desperately pushed forward with his Plan B even though he didn’t have the votes among other House Republican leaders or his base. Never call for a vote guessing on the outcome. Call for a vote you either want to fail or know will pass. Never ‘test’ your base with a vote the outcome of which you are uncertain. That’s an approach that will often lead to an ‘egg pie in the face’, and a significant loss of negotiating authority with your own base thereafter, making it even more difficult subsequently to get an agreement. If there’s a cliff here, it’s not fiscal, but the one Boehner leaped off of with his push for Plan B.
Third axiom: Never tell your bargaining committee you’re going to do what you want regardless of what they want. Never take a stand 180 degrees opposite to them. Never tell your ‘chief steward’ and bargaining committee you’re going to make an offer whether they like it or not. Who’s Boehner’s ‘bargaining committee’? For certain it includes House budget chairman, Paul Ryan, and House Ways and Means chair, David Camp. According to the Wall St. Journal lead page one story today, December 22, Boehner decided to go ahead and offer Plan B without them signing on to it. No doubt those two simply went back to the Republican base and organized a revolt against Boehner before he could even offer Plan B.
Another faux-pas by Boehner was to try to desperately put Obama on the defensive over the holidays with Plan B so he, Boehner, could look tough for his upcoming election in the house on January 3. Lesson: never play chicken in bargaining on the eve of your own election. Boehner should have delayed the negotiations big trade-offs until February, agreeing to minor stuff along the way just to keep up the appearance progress was being made. A February closure to the negotiations would have given him more bargaining leverage, with the federal government due to run out of money in March.
No wonder Boehner, after his bungled bargaining, has passed the task on to McConnell in the Senate and to the Obama team. He’s finished as a negotiator, showing his opponents he can’t get a deal and simultaneously losing all authority with his own bargaining committee and his base. His plan may have been ‘B’, but his bargaining skills grade is a generous D-.
Jack Rasmus is the author of the book, “Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few”, Pluto Press, 2012; host of the weekly radio show, ‘Alternative Visions’, on the progressive radio network, PRN.FM. His website is www.kyklosproductions.com, his blog, jackrasmus.com, and twitter handle, #drjackrasmus.