Friday, April 27, 2012

The Opposition

According to a new book by Robert Draper, a group of Republican leaders got together on Barack Obama's inauguration day 2009 and hatched a plan to oppose and obstruct anything he would put forward. Republican House member Kevin McCarthy supposedly said, "We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign." At the end of this meeting, Newt Gingrich told the group they would remember this day. "You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown."

Some reports have said the revelations about this secret meeting are not exactly news. No matter. It's still important to keep in mind what lots of other evidence tells us: before the details of a single plan by the new president were known, leading Republicans had already decided it was in their strategic interest to try to block anything the new administration proposed. President Obama never had an opposition that was willing to work with him at all. Their game plan all along was to portray anything he suggested as radical and unacceptable. And this is exactly what we have seen unfold in the last three years. Even if President Obama suggested something that a substantial number of Republicans had favored the previous week, they were all against it as soon as he supported it. Vociferously and unalterably and nearly unanimously against it.

Those on the right who have bought into the idea that Obama had some kind of radical agenda should question that assumption, given the evidence that Republicans decided to label whatever the president did as radical. Those who think the Democrats were overly partisan or divisive in pushing through the stimulus bill or financial reform or health care reform should also ask how much of that appearance of partisanship was actually created by a highly partisan opposition party.

Some of the left might try to use this new evidence of the Republicans' obstructionist attitude to suggest that President Obama made a mistake in tailoring his economic and other proposals to try to attract support from across the aisle. Since the Republicans were never going to work with this president anyway, he should have tried to push forward a more progressive agenda, instead of continuing to portray himself as willing to find common ground with the opposition, goes this theory. Had he done that, however, he would have made the Republican opposition look more justified. Instead, the Obama team repeatedly exposed the opposition's game, and embarrassed them into opposing some pretty popular ideas, like payroll tax cuts and access to contraception.

Negotiation theory, such as the work by Fisher and Ury, also tells us that even if we are dealing with an adversary who is not willing to negotiate in good faith, or at all, that does not necessarily mean we should give up on negotiating altogether and declare war against that adversary. There are still techniques available to persuade even the most unreasonable opponent that reaching a negotiated agreement is still in their interests. The Obama administration employed many of those techniques, particularly in the budget negotiations of 2011, and wound up with an agreement, albeit one that cost the administration some support from the left, and that the Republicans are now trying to walk away from.

The 2012 election will provide the ultimate test for whether the Republican strategy of obstruction has succeeded or failed. Apart from all the other reasons that this president deserves re-election, voters might think about whether they want to reward those kinds of tactics, or instead want to send a message to Congress that we want them all to work together to find common ground.

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