Sunday, February 08, 2009

A Narcissist, a Thug, and a Professional Gambler Walk Into a Bar

This should be the start of every discussion from now until the end of time. Its not a joke, its a prescription. Not that they are listening but the Obama team should immediately contact three kinds of specialists: game theorists, Bob Altemeyer, and specialists in Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The Debacle of the Stimulus bill, which began with what apparently was Obama's honest outreach to the unreachable Republicans, could have been avoided by these simple words and true: there's no there there. You are dealing with Narcissists, Thieves, Liars, and Gamblers. Recognize that and you realize that a mere political mind and Roberts Rules of Order are not going to be enough to win the game.

After Pelosi stripped out the contraception stuff, at the behest of the White House, only to see every House Republican vote against it, and after the Dems stripped 87 billion dollars and 600,000 jobs out of the Senate Bill, only to see Boehner et al say *they* won't vote for it, I was reminded forcibly of a scene from the Sopranos. The one where Dr. Melfi is sitting in bed, reading a study of sociopaths, and she comes across the line "for the sociopath, therapy itself becomes a form of sociopathy. They can not be sucessfully treated. Therapy becomes one more place where they can enact their criminal tendencies. And the therapist just one more person they can manipulate." (or something like that).

Isn't that basically the situation with the Republicans. The Democrats insist on coming to the bargaining table with *equals* and even with "partners" whose understanding of the goals of the game are basically similar. The very notion of "bipartisanship" implies that, ultimately, the Republicans and the Democrats are on the same side--lets call it a "purple America." Maybe their hierarchy of needs and wants is a little different--for example each Senator or Congressman represents a different district whose real world interests may be differerent. But that just means that you are presuming that each Senator and Congressman is, in fact, representing *his district* and *its interests* and, in a larger sense, American citizens and their interests. That basic assumption is false. The Republicans do not put the interests of their constitutents above other interests. We know that because the ones squealing the loudest about CEO pay do not, in fact, run districts just chock full of Bankers who would fall under the Ban. And we know that because the ones squealing the loudest about how evil it would be to extend COBRA subsidies to out of work people are not, in fact, from States where there is no unemployment. Not only are the Republicans ideologues and crude partisans for upper class interests *to the despite* of their own constituents and regional interests but they also have their eye on a longer, farther, prize: retaking power nationally. And we know that the principle way they imagine retaking power is by crippling Obama and the Dems, not by (for example) generating new ideas. {And we know *that* because they just closed down and refused to fund a new think tank aimed at generating new ideas, and because they refuse to repudiate both Rush Limbaugh and John McCain as spokesmen.}

So, what should the Democrats do? Well, as we all pointed out when Bush labled first Saddam Hussein and the Ahmedinajad "madmen" the fact that people are difficult, or mean, or have other interests than yours doesn't make them mad, and it doesn't mean you can't bargain with them. It just means you have to be smart about it. And the first thing to grasp is that the Senators and the Congressmen that we have sent to Washington, and even the President and Rahm his little enforcer, are, strictly speaking, amateurs. We need some serious experts. We don't need experts at *what is to be done* so much as we need experts at *how it is to be done.*

Forgive me for pointing out the obvious but all of this vote counting and vote getting and bargaining to get this or that vote is not rocket science and ought not to have come down to this level of submissive, cost cutting behavior from the Dems. What we had from the outset was a wounded, angry, frightened, hostile group of Senators whose interests will not be well served as a party if the President succeeds in passing a jobs program of any size. That was the basic given. People who know the New Deal worked are not operating in the same universe as the people who are insisting that it didn't.

If you aren't dealing with partners, you are dealing with competitors. And the rules of how to get what you want from a competitor are really very different from the rules of how to get what you want in a partnership. There was only a chance that the President would peel off three or four votes. The right thing to do at the get go was to figure out which those votes would be and then to bribe or batter them loose. Here's the thing that seems obvious to me--the bribe should *never* have included the hook that the "centrists" would get to work with other "centrists" on the dem side. Never. And the bribe should never have included "you get to cut stuff out of the bill." The only bargaining point should have been *you may add stuff to the bill* that you think is important, and your bargaining counterpart should have been far, far, far to the left of the centrist Senators. Nelson, Bayh et al. should have been locked in a room somewhere with the following lines to write "I will never, ever, ever, publicly contradict the Democratic Leadership. I know that my entire future as a Democratic Senator and the earmarks for my state depend on my making them happy."

And, of course, the negotiating should never have been left up to the Senate in the first place. We knew that was one of the "choke points" in the legislative loop but the Democrats fell into the trap of figuring that all negotiations should remain in that box. Instead of allowing the so called moderate Republicans to feel their power, and feeding their ego at the upper levels I would have taken the fight straight to their districts and their states with full page ads demonstrating just how much *their constituents* stood to loose or gain by their Senator's vote. This many jobs lost *in your state* and this much money at stake to keep the state afloat? A signed open letter from the Mayors, Governors, and State Senators pleading with their Senator to fall in line behind the President? Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and even some more intransigent Senators would have tripped over themselves to avoid that label locally almost regardless of when their next primary is. I'm not arguing for all sticks and no carrots--far from it. I'm just arguing that if the field of engagement is very narrow you benefit from expanding it. Its really clear from the whole Daschle idiocy that the Democrats really believe that personal relationships matter in moving legislation. And yet, time and again, they discover that that simply isn't so on the Republican side. Personal relationships are talked about, but never respected if it goes against party loyalty or party interests. That's the Narcissistic Personality Disorder part of the story. We've been using the metaphor of Charlie Brown and the Football for years without taking it seriously enough as a party. The Republicans betray the Democrats in the Senate and in Congress *on a personal level* every time and the Democrats remain stunned and confused by it *every time.* That is because the Democrats insist that human relations and social relations will trump ideology and the Republicans never submit to that if it doesn't benefit them personally.

This little essay very much confuses analysis with prescription and I apologize for that.