Here's what happens when you make a bunch of concessions before negotiations begin: your compromised stance becomes the baseline.
— David Roberts (@drgrist) November 8, 2012
Why is it that progressive pundits are so eager to make pronouncements about things they know nothing about? Political negotiations are not like buying a car, no matter what the progressives keep saying. A car salesman is motivated to take your money - he does not get paid until you buy. A GOP Speaker of the House doesn't have the same kind of motivation - and he's not making a single deal with the President, he knows that he is in a series of negotiations in which one concession may lead to other concessions or other wins, depending. There is no motivation to "split the difference" here so coming in high or low doesn't make a difference.
When John Boehner opens negotiations on the budget after the 2012 elections with "new revenue under the right conditions" is he "negotiating with himself" and screwing up the GOP anti-tax stance? No. He's trying an old trick: open to new revenue but - not new taxes, because, of course, under GOP dogma, tax cuts will increase revenue. So one principle is that in these kinds of complex negotiations terms may not always mean the same to both parties. This is different from buying a car where one negotiates about a dollar figure that is reasonably clear. And note, Boehner is not aiming this ploy at the President, who is not going to be fooled, he is aiming at the public so he can appear to be reasonable. Because, here's another difference between cars and legislation: there are a lot of involved parties in legislation. If it were only Boehner and the President there would never be a deal because Boehner's goal is to obstruct the President. But Boehner is not just negotiating with the President. Boehner is also targeting the public, the media, members of his own party in Congress and Democrats in Congress. If he can sell the proposition that he is being reasonable, it will generate pressure on the Democrats.
It is odd that the "progressives" are always ready to attack the President for using exactly the same ploys, but somehow don't notice it when the other side does the same thing. I think one reasons for this is that progressives continue the old Democratic tradition of letting the GOP define the terms. Thus, "grand bargain", a totally meaningless term is assumed by progressives to mean what the Republicans would like it to mean. It's not just that progressives defer to the Republicans on such definitions, it is that they have internalized GOP claims that Democrats are weak and are always looking for signs that confirm their suspicion that the Democrats, being weak and cowardly, have "caved".
One thing that I learned painfully when I began doing complex negotiations, but that many "progressive" critics of the President don't understand is that one should never inform the other party which points are your more critical ones. This allows you to battle fiercely over stuff you don't care about, and give in, providing a huge win to the other side while quietly smuggling in the part you do care about. Amateurs tend to draw a line in the sand on their critical issues and then get ground down. A second key thing to learn is that it is often possible to give away the store and then take it back some other way - something that our progressives have never seen in car negotiations but is really common in business negotiations. I want to sell you a widget for $100 and you refuse to pay more than $30. Eventually, reluctantly, I agree on your price having added a $75 maintenance fee for services I was previously willing to give away. You get to show your management what a tough MF you are, having crushed the vendor, and I get the money I wanted in the first place. Everyone is happy.
Another point is to remember what your fundamental goals are and to be willing to completely change your position if you can win those goals via an easier path. This is a point that eludes most progressives who seem to become emotionally involved in battles over details. If you can give in on a "public option" that gives something very similar to what will pop back up in "exchanges", then you win what you really want. Always be ready to step back and see where the negotiation is going and what you really care about.
A great example of this is the reported deal the President was willing to offer on Social Security of distant reductions in inflation computation in exchange for massive changes in tax code to reduce GOP welfare for the rich. The President stepped back and understood that the long term goals of the Democratic Party are reducing the wealth gap and constructing a more democratic political and economic system. Given that, the $1Trillion/year that the GOP gives to its political allies is the big issue - and failing to win on that means that the GOP holds onto a lot of its institutional power and will continue to be able to threaten to destroy the whole social safety net. Because, although progressives seem to not get this, the GOP does not need the President to "put social security on the table". Everything is on the table and it's naive in the extreme to suppose that if you don't say anything you somehow block your opponents from bringing up their priorities. Paul Ryan will try to destroy SS no matter what. But 5 years down the line, if the President has, say, negotiated a limit on SS inflation adjustment in exchange for tax changes that cut the PE sector in half - Ryan is going to be much weaker and people who want to protect and enhance SS are going to be stronger.
But if you don't trust the negotiator. If, in your heart you know that Republicans are tough strong winners and Democrats are "pussies", then you will never be able to either understand how President Obama negotiates or free yourself from the GOP world view. You have started out the negotiation about what the world looks like by accepting your opponents point of view and that is something you can never recover from.