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Post Partisan
Posted at 09:40 AM ET, 11/30/2012

You call this a compromise?


I used a harsh adjective the other day to describe the GOP’s opening offer on fiscal cliff talks with the White House: pathetic.  Fairness demands the same adjective to be applied to the White House bid.  It, too, is pathetic.

To review the bidding: The GOP agreed to new tax revenue but set no dollar amount or enforcement mechanism.  In a lopsided exchange, it demanded extension of the upper-income tax cuts, cancellation of the sequester cuts and assorted entitlement reforms. 

In other words, the goodies Republicans want now, with a gauzy promise to accommodate Democrats down the road.

Now comes the White House — three and a half weeks after the election — with its own restated intransigence.  The White House asks: $1.6 trillion in tax revenue, $50 billion in new stimulus spending, and a reversion to the Clinton-era tax brackets for the wealthiest Americans.  Oh, and what would in effect be a permanent increase in the debt ceiling.

This is less than what the president was willing to give House Speaker John Boehner last year.  Okay, an election’s intervened.  But it’s also less than what he set out in last year’s budget, which didn’t’ have the debt ceiling demand. 

This is not negotiating, it’s chest-thumping.

At this point, my friends in the White House are getting ready to chide me for resorting to the false comfort of a plague on both your houses phony equivalence. 

Their argument is: We have already anted up and specified, in our budget, several hundred billion in mandatory spending cuts, including $340 billion in health care savings.  By the end of the decade, the White House argues, the health savings are more than what was contained in the Simpson-Bowles recommendations.

 Meanwhile, the administration argument continues, Republicans have not budged one iota — more precisely, 1 percentage point — on tax rates.  Until that happens, any offer we make would be negotiating against ourselves.  Been there, done that, during the debt ceiling debacle. 

Roger Fisher and William Ury, in their classic book, “Getting to Yes,” spell out the test of a successful negotiation. “Any method of negotiation may fairly be judged by three criteria: It should produce a wise agreement if agreement is possible.”

 “It should be efficient.  And it should improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties. (A wise agreement can be defined as one which meets the legitimate interests of each side to the extent possible, resolves conflicting interests fairly, is durable, and takes community interests into account.)”

That seems like a pretty sensible standard to apply to the cliff conundrum.  And by that metric, we are getting precisely nowhere.  Actually, by any metric we are getting precisely nowhere.  We are not getting to yes, we are getting to the edge of the cliff, and beyond.

Yes, President Obama won the election.  But negotiating, especially with an adversary with whom you have a continuing relationship, cannot be premised on the notion of vanquishing the other side.  

The White House would do well to acknowledge the enormous symbolic significance of the Republican about-face on tax revenue and help the GOP find a face-saving way to sell a revenue-raising, entitlement-reforming package to its members. 

To take one example, if the president wants to stick to his $1.6 trillion revenue figure, what combination of higher rates and loophole closing would it take to get there?  Rather than make an offer, the White House, to jump-start discussions, could present a menu of options, with various combinations and trade-offs needed to get to particular dollar amounts.  Think of it as more Chinese restaurant than I’m here/you’re there negotiation.

And let’s get serious: The president has not said that the top rate needs to revert to 39.6 percent.  He’s only said it needs to be higher than the current level.  Do the math — 37.3 percent anyone?  In private conversations with me, Republicans have been less insistent on the current rates being carved in stone than they sound publicly.

 But the danger is that the White House stance backs them into a corner from which they can’t emerge.  The administration should be searching for a face-saving way out for the other side.

There are three goals to keep in mind as the cliff — okay, the slope — draws closer: First, to avoid the damage, psychological and actual, of jumping off/sliding down.  Second, to achieve a longer-term solution to the debt.  Third, to set the stage — or at least not poison the well — for talks on other issues (immigration reform, for one) down the road. 

All three, I worry, are at risk.

By  |  09:40 AM ET, 11/30/2012

 
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