Is a Two-Stage Negotiation Really Better?

Full credit to Erick Erickson and Ben Domenech for pushing a negotiating strategy that the Republican leadership appears to have embraced–namely, splitting the shutdown and debt ceiling negotiations with a short-term debt limit offer. The GOP certainly seems to have reaped some PR benefit from the exercise.

And yet I’m not quite sure it’s the best way forward. On the positive side, it enables conservatives to keep the focus on Obamacare, in the shutdown negotiations. On the negative side, what new leverage will the GOP be able to exercise there? Public opposition to the Obamacare exchanges may grow–but the errors may be fixed.

The other downside is that the left may be able to interpret the short-term debt ceiling offer as a capitulation. That’s certainly what Van Jones seemed to think on CNN today–and Jay Carney, too, congratulated the GOP on confronting the Tea Party wing (even though the proposal came from the party’s conservative side).

I thought the GOP dodged a potential bullet when the shutdown negotiations rolled into the debt ceiling talks, not because Republicans should use the debt limit as leverage for Obamacare changes, but because a bigger discussion might permit those concessions to be won within a larger bargaining process with more flexibility.

I suppose I am more optimistic about the GOP’s ability to use the Full Faith and Credit Act to avoid default, and less bullish on the prospects of exercising leverage within a discussion about the shutdown alone. The two sides are so far apart that only a trade–i.e. Obamacare delay for immigration reform–might work.

That might prove far more costly (in political terms) than, say, Obamacare delay for an extra $400 billion in new revenues. My fear is that Democrats might use a debate over the shutdown to make demands that the GOP cannot accept–and then talks could drag on into November, and back to square one–on worse terms.

One thing to be said of all two-stage negotiations is that they offer the opportunity to build trust by forging agreements on small things first. Given the nature of the political divide in Washington today, perhaps a small deal could lead to public confidence (see today’s stock market leap) that leads to bigger and better deals.

On the other hand, a two-stage negotiation can also have the opposite effect. It can also weaken the side that is seen to “blink” first. Today, the GOP and the White House are said to have “blinked” at the same time. The outcome may well depend on how well Republicans use the temporary media windfall that today brought.