The excellent History Channel production on the age of the business tycoon included this observation, which held true in the 19th century and continues to hold true today:
"To be a successful negotiator, you've got to be willing to walk away from the deal."
John Boehner and Mitch McConnell blocked many Obama Administration proposals by repeatedly making it clear that they would walk away from any deal short of capitulation, from 2008-2012.
In today's meeting with the President, neither Boehner nor McConnell showed any strong inclination to deal, although they nodded their heads a few times and mumbled a word or two about demanding new spending cuts before they would give in on any kind of revenue increases.
Neither Boehner nor McConnell has ever warmed up in the televised photo opportunities in the White House, which they have used as proof that they are standing up to the President, nodding in a mocking way and rolling their eyes whenever the President says that there will have to be painful compromise, and that all must work together.
Both Boehner and McConnell are playing a different game than the one that the President thinks he is playing with them. What they are playing is POKER. The President is playing something else, like let's have a group sing-along, let's play beautiful music together, or even let's dance.
How do we know that they are playing poker, rather than "let's dance"? It is fairly clear. Both Boehner and McConnell made it clear that they were laying their "CARDS ON THE TABLE," or that they are putting "revenue" or taxes "on the table." Boehner also got in a physical jab into the President's rib when Obama joked about it being Boehner's birthday but not having a cake due to not knowing how many candles to put on it.
In other words, Boehner's body language - the little mock-jab to President's rib - shows further that what Boehner has in mind is that he and the President are actually engaged in a boxing match. It makes a certain amount of sense, because Boehner has had a lot of experience physically pushing people around when he was a bouncer at the family bar near Cincinnati.
Poker and boxing - these are typical metaphors for the ways that two opposing parties interact - they exchange blows, and they play their cards as shrewdly and craftily as they can to beat their opponent.
Now, President Obama has been trying for 4 years to try to persuade Boehner and McConnell to dance, to make music together, and to prove his good will, he has repeatedly extended olive branches to them, offering to compromise. They have balked every time, after mumbling a few words and nodding their heads a few times. Why?
Because Boehner and McConnell only know one way to handle power - by fighting as craftily and shrewdly and aggressively as they can, and to fight dirty when they think they have to.
Boehner and McConnell are not going to play any game except poker and boxing with the President.
When Harry Reid and Joe Biden enter the picture, the situation is entirely different, especially where the Senate's consent is required. Reid and Biden are poker players and boxers, just like Boehner and McConnell are.
Boehner and McConnell would prefer to meet with the President in the White House, because they have mastered the art of acting jovial and friendly, and then proving that the President failed to convince (i.e. force) them to do anything other than what they think Republicans want them to do.
So the little photo op meetings with the President actually make President Obama look like a less effective leader, and they empower Boehner and McConnell, by making it clear that President Obama will consider anything that comes from their meetings to be a failure unless they can all agree on making changes that his opposing players do not want to make. (Can we try changing the key of the song from D to E major, the second time that we sing the chorus together? (he asks) They reply: "No way, Jose." or they say that they will change key halfway through, but they never do it, and the song collapses into disharmony, ending abruptly.).
This requires a change of strategy on the President's part:
new strategy (1) - accept the fact that the game being played is poker, not "sing-along."
new strategy (2) - accept the fact that the President is not a poker player.
new strategy (3) - allow Reid and Biden to handle the poker match (with input from Pelosi and Schumer), freeing up the President to handle everything else that he needs to focus on.
new strategy (4) - the President can steer clear of the useless meetings with Boehner and McConnell, which don't accomplish anything and just make them look stronger, and what the President does instead is takes over the job of "The Secretary of Explaining Stuff" to the American people (i.e., does a series of fireside chats with the nation about what is happening, how Americans can help, explaining the narrative to them so that they can see for example, that we have three aces, and the other side is playing a weak hand and trying to bluff us into capitulating. And we aren't going to fall for that nonsense anymore).
Why does President Obama keep on letting himself get sucked into this silly and pointless photo opportunities for Boehner and McConnell to make a mockery out of?
The answer is that he really, genuinely thinks that compromise is necessary. He has been an acolyte of the Tom Daschle school of negotiating, which is that if one runs a "good government" philosophy, then everyone will see how good the intentions are, and everyone will cooperate, and they will get along, and there will be a happy ending.
Similarly, he observed how Bill Clinton was very eager to please everyone in economic negotiations, and wanted to make it seem like everyone had a good outcome and was happy. The only problem with using that approach is that (A) Obama does not have the same ability to snooker the Republican leaders or make fools out of them when needed, and (B) Even if he had the same skill set as Clinton had, including the ability to "explain stuff" to the nation in a compelling way, thus gaining the upper hand, even so, he might end up being the victim of the triangulation game as Clinton sometimes did.
Here is the most treacherous issue of all for the President, in all of this: Boehner and McConnell know that Obama will lose the negotiations if they refuse to compromise with him. In other words, if they do anything but what he wants them to, then Obama is, de facto, the loser (in his terms, as the President has defined the situation).
So, they can in essence beat him about the head, and run circles around him and his Administration, refusing in every possible way, teasing, acting like horses or elephants, for the next four years, and in their eyes, they automatically win. This time, they won't say that they will block Obama, but in reality, they will play their cards to win and to defeat him at political poker.
The President set this scenario up today, by meeting with Boehner and McConnell, with body language and words from them showing that they weren't really interested in doing the kind of compromise or sing-along that Obama was asking them for. They walked away happy enough, because they had their photo op, and pretended to negotiate - they played their little bluff hand of poker today, and they think they won it, and they probably did, in their way of thinking.
The President can change this dynamic very quickly. He can take notice of the pointlessness of these photo ops with Boehner jabbing him and rolling his eyes in a mocking way, and McConnell insisting again that spending cuts are required for any talk of revenue (he can play back the tape and see that it doesn't play out well visually for the Dem side).
No more of these photo op sessions - this isn't getting anything accomplished, except questionable PR and pseudo-negotiation.
Now, let Boehner and McConnell go back to Capital Hill and let them play the only game they know how to play - political poker, or some political boxing. . . but not with the President who has other important things to do. Let them play poker or boxing with Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden. See how it goes then.