A comment from “CSH” at Jonathan Bernstein’s fantastic A Plain Blog about Politics really struck me.
…at least these days, politics isn’t really horse-trading the way folks define it. Horse-trading involves consideration; it requires both parties to feel better off for having made the trade. When you give me, a small businessman, a dollar for a Milky Way bar, presumably we are both happier with the trade than without.
Obama’s approach makes a lot of sense in the context of horse-trading as we typically conceive it. Obama singing the praises of Reagan would be like me, the small businessman, singing the praises of the Milky Way bar you want, which should increase the amount you’re willing to pay for it, thus eventually making me happier as the small businessman.
But politics these days isn’t really like freely-entered trade where consideration accrues to both sides; its more like a game of chicken between hot rods on a Friday night on a deserted country road.
In which context, Obama’s logic and praise for his opponent sounds like saying that the car across the way is really impressive and fast and well-built…intimidating…the result of which should be that the teen across the way hits the gas a little harder, with a bit more abandon, than he might have otherwise. Interesting.
The analogy isn’t perfect. A bargain typically doesn’t start by praising the other person’s merchandise (as opposed to the person himself, his or her concerns, and the legitimacy of his or her point of view: Dale Carnegie’s central lesson). Still, the underlying point is very strong. In a game of mutually-advantageous bargaining you do all you can to make your opponent feel appreciated. In a game of chicken you do all you can to make him feel despised: if he thinks you think he lacks the courage to drive straight, he knows you’ll drive straight—and he’ll turn.
The President has had trouble appreciating this until recently because until now there’s never been a party willing to crash the government and the economy in order to please a hyper-partisan base. All of Washington’s games until recently have been mixed or impure bargaining games: both sides assume they will gain something, the only question being which will gain more. But I think that Obama has come to realize what the game is. And I think he’s learning how to play it much better than either his opponents or his progressive critics realize.