Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Drawing Lines in the Sand

Paul Krugman says that President Obama messed up on health care big time at his press conference on Tuesday. Supposedly the President did that by undercutting his eloquent pitch for a so-called "public option" by refusing to state that a public option was a non-negotiable feature of his health care reform proposal. The exact quote is as follows:

"We have not drawn lines in the sand other than that reform has to control costs and that it has to provide relief to people who don’t have health insurance or are underinsured."

According to Paul Krugman, President Obama is making a mistake by negotiating with himself, and thereby giving away more than he needs to. Krugman displays a common view of negotiation that supposes that a party shows weakness by indicating that everything is on the table for negotiation, or by refusing to state in advance that certain conditions are non-negotiable. I believe most mediators would disagree with that common view. Mediators try to discourage parties from making "final offers," or from stating that a certain point is non-negotiable. If a party who draws a line in the sand does not get his way, he has left himself only the alternatives of either walking away from a potentially advantageous deal, or backing down from his "non-negotiable" position. If anything is going to make someone look weak, it is having to back down from a supposedly non-negotiable position. Therefore, it should be viewed as a sign of strength, not weakness, to acknowledge that every issue is negotiable. That doesn't mean you are going to have to compromise your fundamental interests, but it does prevent you from painting yourself into a corner that can be created by announcing a non-negotiable position. In other words, once you say something is non-negotiable, you limit your own negotiating options, and you may preclude obtaining a deal altogether.

Let's compare President Obama's approach to this year's health care reform debate with former President Clinton's approach. President Clinton waved his pen in the air and told Congress he would veto any bill that did not meet his conditions. Guess what? President Clinton didn't get any bill at all. By taking an open and flexible approach, by listening to and including all points of view in the process, but by nevertheless advocating the administration's position as strongly as possible, it seems likely that President Obama will succeed in obtaining significant health care reform this year, where President Clinton failed. People like Paul Krugman will complain that the final product does not go as far as Krugman would have wished, or that the administration gave away too much in negotiations. My guess, however, is that an open-minded approach to negotiations will result in at least as successful an outcome as a hard-headed approach.

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