If the recent debt ceiling morass and unappetizing conclusion has taught us anything, it is how not to negotiate with those you disagree with. The solidity of the US financial market hung in the balance as politicians fought back and forth, reached and scrapped compromises and eventually signed a tepid debt ceiling increase on the last day before the US was predicted to default on its debt. The resulting historic downgrade of US creditworthiness by the S&P only demonstrates what a poor compromise can accomplish.
Many politicians claim that they are willing to reach out and meet their counterparts in the middle. We often here them say such things as, “let’s meet in the middle” or “let’s have a meeting of minds” or “let’s come together on this issue”. What is this middle they speak of, anyways, and what does it take to get there?
All too often, such statements as “meeting in the middle” have really meant nothing more than pursuing “middle of the road” solutions. In other words, they’ve sought to meet in the middle of the political spectrum, a no-man’s-land that unwilling politicians are forced to tread when they have no other choice. Often, the agreements that come from this place are insubstantial and leave both sides unhappy, discouraged and critical. Such was the case with the debt ceiling debate.
Some may argue that the outcome of the debt ceiling debate was not a compromise at all, since the Republicans got more of what they wanted, while the Democrats got less. After all, the Tea Party, along with the Republicans they support, would not budge on such items as tax increases for the wealthy or defense cuts. However, each side did make concessions in a last-ditch effort to come up with an agreement – a compromise of sorts, which no one was really happy with, and many believe will not do much to lower the debt.
So the question is whether each side in the debt ceiling debate could “meet in the middle” or “come together” in such as way that results in substantial reforms, which both parties can embrace and feel good about. Yes, if each side is willing to come up with viable options, which take into account the concerns of the other side, thus satisfying them in some way. In the debate that ensued, however, each side focused only on its own concerns, while minimizing or discarding those of the other side.
What were some of these concerns anyways? Democrats were concerned about preserving the integrity of entitlements, such as Medicare, while looking for defense cuts and tax increases to the rich. On the other hand, Republicans were concerned about preserving the integrity of defense and favorable tax conditions for the wealthy, while cutting entitlements. The lines were drawn and each side did not want to budge.
Positions were laid out in such black and white terms, that it seemed next to impossible whether anyone could reach a real negotiated outcome which had teeth and benefited both sides.
The result of the debt-ceiling crisis has only created more uncertainty and a sinking confidence among the electorate, along with lower poll numbers, for both the Congress and the executive branch. There were no winners in this contest, and when the politicians lose, so do the American people.
So, what if each side came back to the table with the intention of “meeting in the middle” or “coming together” in order to come up with viable solutions that could satisfy both sides and the public in some way. How would they have to proceed? The first step, as previously mentioned, would be to acknowledge the concerns of the other side. The next step would be for each side to avoid the “either-or” mentality of seeing everything in black and white terms, which limits conversation and choices.
For example, if Republicans are so unwilling to increase taxes on the rich, what instead if we zoom in on the “rich”, and become more detailed about who the rich really are. Are they monolithic? If not, then perhaps we can break them down into subgroups, thereby creating more options as to how we might raise taxes or cut loopholes on some or all of them.
If Democrats are so resistant to cutting entitlements, what instead, if we zoom in on “entitlements”, and get down to the nitty-gritty about what makes up these entitlements. Are they monolithic? If not, then perhaps we can break them down into subgroups, as in the case of identifying the rich, and thereby come up with more choices as to how we might cut entitlement spending.
Generalizations about the rich, or defense, or Medicare or other entitlements create “either-or” thinking, which is both unrealistic and prevents innovative or creative solutions from coming forth. Zooming in on the details creates more choices and better solutions.
I think it’s time to rehabilitate political compromises or negotiated outcomes and turn it from a war zone where each combatant limps away with a pyrrhic victory into a cool café lounge where both sides have a true meeting of minds, sip on some hot lattes and talk to each other like grownups who both want to get to the same place.
This not only applies to policy makers on Capitol Hill, but to anyone who engages in discussion, no matter how casual. Next time we get into a discussion: 1) let’s consider one another’s concerns, and 2) avoid the “either-or” thinking of seeing everything only in black and white. Rather, let’s take a closer look at the various aspects and nuances of the debate. In so doing will more options naturally arise, sometimes unexpectedly, resulting in a better outcome for all.