Posturing and positioning during negotiations has always been part and parcel in politics, but the recent impasse over the debt ceiling negotiations in the U.S. has thrust those maneuvers more into the public view. Whether it be a press conference held by the President or a PowerPoint presentation by the House Majority Leader to his party members, each action during a negotiation influences the outcome.
Perhaps the simplest way to begin analyzing any negotiation is to establish who is negotiating from a position of power. “In negotiations, there’s a couple of things that determine the power,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor of management and organizations and expert on negotiations. “One is, what are your alternatives? If they don’t reach a deal, what does the world look like for you tomorrow versus today? In this case, clearly one of the considerations is politics…Who needs a deal reached more, Republicans or Democrats?”
In the case of the debt ceiling negotiations, Galinsky said there are three main factors at play—politics, principles, and prosperity. Each is of differing importance to the different parties involved in the negotiations. How an issue plays with the electorate is always on a politician’s mind, but some are more concerned than others. President Obama is very much focused on prosperity, Galinsky said, in part because it is his role as president to be the “steward of the economy.” Plus, “the prosperity issue may have downstream political effects because as we know from many elections that how people feel about their daily livelihood is a big determinant of whether they vote for an incumbent.” John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, is concerned with a mix of politics, principles, and prosperity, he added.
Eric Cantor, being the House Majority Leader, is focused on a hybrid of principles and politics. As the leader of the House Republicans—many of whom were elected on a tea party platform and are more concerned with principles of budget cuts and lower taxes than re-elecetion—his political aspirations are tied to the support he receives from fellow GOP representatives. Cantor hews to the principles in part because they are key to his political power, Galinsky pointed out.
Much has been said about Eric Cantor’s role in the process. Regardless of whether you think he’s a wrench in the works or a principled advocate, he has been attempting to bolster his position both within the negotiations and within his own party. By revealing the goings-on of the negotiations to the press and his party, Cantor was trying to “get an upper hand in the negotiations by letting the rank and file know exactly what was going on.” Cantor knew many conservative Republicans would not like some of the compromises being floated during the talks, and he felt that raising their ire would give him more strength at the bargaining table.
Should things go his way, it could strengthen his position within the GOP. The Republicans, as a group, have shown little interest in offering concessions in the negotiations, in part because they don’t feel that they will suffer much politically if a deal isn’t reached. “I think a lot of Republicans don’t believe it’s going to have the catastrophic effect of going into default that many economists and Democrats feel,” Galinsky said. “That’s making them more resistant to reaching a deal.” From that perspective, their strategy makes sense because in negotiations “the party that’s going to be less hurt by not reaching an agreement is the one who is going to be most resistant to reaching a deal that doesn’t fit their precise interests,” he added.
While the President’s talks with Republicans seem to have stalled out, a new plan floated by the bipartisan “Gang of Six” may meet with some success precisely because it hasn’t been front page news until very recently. Negotiations between President Obama and the Republicans have been “complicated with trying to find situations where they have room to talk with each other” without details being leaked to the press, Galinsky said. The new plan hasn’t shared the same spotlight, allowing its architects to hash out the difficult details before presenting it to the press and their respective sides.
Photo by The White House.