Plots and Thoughts

Negotiation Skills: Why Democrats Lose

Posted in Strategy by Captain Optimistic on January 9, 2010

I was discussing my last post with a friend, and she mentioned that she agreed that politicians ought to stand up for what they believe.  But that isn’t it.  Yes, politicians with backbone will crush those with none.  But to truly be effective we need to understand a basic point of negotiation and perception.  Let’s take an example.

You want to make $20 an hour.  You’ve done the research, and in your town that is a real living wage.  You currently make $8 an hour.  Rather than going against your boss directly, you are taking your case to the people for a vote on a new minimum wage.  How do you make that case?

If you are a liberal blogger, you present the research and opine that $20 an hour is the only solution which makes sense economically and ethically.

If you are an Elected Democrat, you begin by saying we need to fight for $15 an hour.  However, you acknowledge, you need to negotiate with Republicans (who believe in no minimum wage at all and are very reasonable people).  Given the disparity of their position and your own, you decide to offer an olive branch by discussing $14 an hour.  The Republicans go wild, discussing how any wage mandate at all is a slap in the face of the free market.  Protests by people proud to be making $8 an hour spring up as if by magic (connections to well financed Republican PR firms are only weakly acknowledged in the mainstream press).  You find your conservative Democrat allies are saying they will not even allow a vote unless you commit to no more than $12 an hour.  You hurriedly do so in the most patchwork manner possible.  Your aides leak to the press you’ve been intending to go as low as $10 an hour, to try and manage expectations (No, not the expectations of the opposition as to how far they can get, but your constituents as to what they can expect you to accomplish).  This creates additional downward pressure, as the Republicans do not budge an inch (pledging to vote against any bill you come up with).  Conservative Democrats, sensing blood in the water, argue for $10 an hour and again threaten to block the bill.  By the time all is said and done the final bill has dropped to a magnificent $10 an hour, and your constituents love you.  Don’t worry, you’ll still get elected in the next cycle.  After all, no one wants to elect a Republican and lose $2 an hour or more when they roll back your latest legislative victory.

So how should an effective progressive make their case?  Start by repeating the average compensation for a CEO in hourly wages.  That comes to $5,240 an hour.  Begin building a case for $50 an hour, not $20.  Don’t paint $20 as the goal.  $20 is what you are settling for.  $40 would be livable, but why shoot for just livable?  Why not really push for working Americans?  Bring the discussion past your goals.  Make $20 seem like a concession, and remain united and focused on that front.  If the Republicans can do it, why can’t we?

This is why Democrats keep losing our battles for us.  Partially because they are in fact centrists and conservatives elected under the Democratic banner, and partially because of a political ineptitude that would see them fired from any private position in the country.  We can elect people who will do better.

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Health Care: Progressive Wonk Rhetoric Fail

Posted in Strategy by Captain Optimistic on January 9, 2010

Lindsay takes progressives and allies to task for tearing apart those of us who argue the Health Care bill is so pathetic and harmful it needs to die.  She effectively points out the concepts of negotiation and leverage so many powerful progressives fail to understand well enough to utilize.  However she leaves out a basic rhetorical concept that the right wing has mastered to the continuing detriment of the left: the overton window.

Lindsay observes:

Health care reform is no longer just an intellectual argument, it’s a negotiation. KTBers understand that. Wonky progressives cringe when KTBers say the bill will be worse than than nothing. When they say that, wonks hear a ridiculous overstatement. Which it probably is.

There is political power in ridiculous statements that goes beyond the act of negotiation.  If the discussion is dominated by those far to the right of our goal, and the only opposing voice is aiming for a position closer to the center than our real goals, we are losing ground.  We need people who are so committed to the ideal of universal care that they argue beyond single payer.  Where are the progressives arguing that the right to life enshrined in the constitution entitles every human being to free health care, food, and shelter?  We need people arguing that restricting our goal to only health care, and allowing co-pays at all, is a concession.  We need people arguing that health insurance companies provide such an essential service they have no right to exist as private for profit corporations!  These arguments need to be made with all the skill and fervor we can muster if they are going to be taken seriously enough to push the national discourse back towards an ethical resolution on health care reform.

If we are going to win, we need negiotiators and savvy rhetoricians applying leverage and changing the national conversation in our favor.  Whether or not the current bill passes, we as citizens need to use the above skills to ensure the next round of legislators are braver, shrewder, more effective and more loyal than our current batch.  This means discussing the health care reform effort as the monumental failure it is for failing to go far enough and in the right direction.

If we are going to win, we need to learn the lessons of negotiation and rhetoric well enough to become a political force to be reckoned with.