A Pesky Matter of Perspective

The trick is to figure out how the other guy thinks. That’s how you get things done – coaches know that – some players you scold and embarrass, and they perform well to prove you’re wrong and a total jerk, while other need encouragement and that hand on the shoulder and all the rest. And managers know this, and teachers know this, and diplomats certainly know this. As Henry Cabot Lodge once said, animosity is not a policy. You want to know what motivates the other party, even if they seem to be lying, or deceiving themselves, about what really motivates them. Sometimes you have to dig deep. And then you may think what motivates them is appalling, or stupid, or is morally monstrous – but you won’t get anywhere by calling them names and sneering at them. You have to think about their way of thinking. Sure, you have your perspective, and you know you’re right, but you need to understand their perspective. That’s your leverage. That’s something you can work with. Thus diplomacy actually is, as they say, the art of letting someone have your way. They think they’ve won, from their perspective. And they have, but that’s from their perspective. There’s always a larger perspective, and that’s where you reside. You win too. It’s a tricky business. And it’s hard work.

An example of how tricky this can be is offered by Ross Douthat in this item about the abortion divide in America:

The country still divides pretty cleanly along educational lines, with high school dropouts strongly opposed to abortion-on-demand, college graduates tilting in its favor, and high school graduates somewhere in between. And surprisingly, that divide hasn’t really changed since the 1970s, despite the changes on other issues, and the shifting pattern of religious practice.

This suggests that – well I’m not exactly sure what it suggests, beyond the obvious point that reality can make mincemeat of any pundit’s neat schematic. But it made me think about the way abortion, because it’s so high profile and politicized, may have become much more of an identity-politics totem than, say, issues like divorce and premarital sex, or even personal habits like churchgoing. In other words, it may be that calling yourself pro-choice has become one of the ways of identifying yourself with the educated class, even if your views on other subjects have shifted, subtly or starkly, in a more traditionalist direction. And likewise, calling yourself pro-life has become one of the ways of identifying as a morally-upright conservative Middle American, even if you don’t go to church and don’t really hew to conservative ethics on almost any other front.

That’s pretty cool – and with the Tea Party crowd in power now, or at least a political force, the abortion issue is bound to come up again and again in the next two years. They are a conservative lot, and it’s not all about stopping the governments from spending any money or doing much of anything at all. They’re social conservatives too. And if you think the choice in this matter should reside with the woman, not the government, how are you going to argue your position? Sneering that the other side doesn’t trust women, or that they don’t understand biology, or that they’re religious idiots who can’t think things through – that’s not going to get you very far. But if you understand you’re dealing with an identity-politics totem – a special symbol and not the thing itself – then you can work with that. You may not get very far – identity totems are potent – but at least you’ll know what you’re dealing with. The trick is to figure out how the other guy thinks.

And now Obama has announced a compromise agreement on extending the Bush-era tax cuts, and the left is up in arms, as the millionaires will get their tax cuts too, even if Obama promised they wouldn’t. Yeah, yeah – it’s a betrayal and all that. Olbermann is on his stentorian high horse, fuming away – and Rachel Maddow is being wonky-outraged with her sly smile – and the folksy Ed Schultz is on fire. What was Obama thinking?

But they don’t want to know what Obama was thinking. That sort of question is always rhetorical, which means it isn’t a question at all. It’s a form of name-calling, and Greg Sargent here puts the tax fight, and Obama’s surprise press conference, where he explained himself, in perspective:

Obama’s argument with the left, at bottom, is more a dispute over what’s achievable – and less an argument over what is desirable to achieve. Obama opposes extending the high end tax cuts, just as the left does. His disagreement with the left is over whether there’s another way to achieve the goals Obama and the left agree on: Extending the middle class cuts and extending unemployment benefits. The left says a protracted fight would achieve those things. Obama and his advisers say a fight wouldn’t achieve those things – or at least that a fight wouldn’t achieve them in time to stave off a tax hike for the middle class. Hence his willingness to reach a deal.

Indeed, Obama’s outburst yesterday was rooted in genuine frustration with the left for not agreeing with him about what’s possible given today’s political realities.

The italics are his, and Sargent is doing what ought to be done – you try to understand how the other party thinks. And why be angry when the other party agrees with you? This is about means, not ends. Pretending Obama is in the pocket of the rich is absurd. Ask anyone on Wall Street. They’ll all tell you Obama is an evil man out to get them, the successful people in a country of hapless losers. Everyone has a limited perspective, and no one is talking much about the facts of the matter. Things are always more complicated than you self-righteously pretend.

Actually, with this proposed tax cut deal, the statistician Nate Silver considers here how Obama’s base will react:

Just because liberals are disappointed with Mr. Obama does not necessarily mean they will fail to turn out and vote for him when the only other choice is a Republican. In some ways, it probably helps Mr. Obama that the country has become so polarized and that liberals view Republicans as such an unacceptable alternative, and vice versa. The prospect of a President Palin or a President Gingrich would surely motivate most liberals to vote – and even comparatively moderate Republican candidates like Mitt Romney will be under pressure to show their conservative stripes during the Republican primaries and are likely to campaign on policies, like a repeal of the health care bill, that liberals overwhelmingly object to.

Yeah, they’re mad, and refuse to put things in perspective, but there are worse things than this tax deal. There’s that woman from Alaska, and The Newt. It really is a matter of perspective.

And Obama is no dummy. See James Joyner here on the logic of Obama’s press conference:

Making enemies of the extremists on both sides is a win. It makes it easy for Obama to dodge the “socialist” and “most liberal ever” labels. And it both belies the Republicans’ newfound zeal for fiscal responsibility and makes it harder to keep the Tea Party zealots on the reservation.

That’s what Andrew Sullivan has been saying about Mitch McConnell:

Does McConnell realize he just struck a huge blow at the FNC/Talk Radio demonization of Obama as an alien? Suddenly, this president is a deal-maker with Republicans. His ability to deal with conservatives was long a feather in his cap. Finally, he has the chance to prove it – and disprove the conspiracy theories, and crazy fabrications on the responsibility-free right.

As he says, it’s a win-win-win – if only the Democrats could see it. And elsewhere Sullivan adds this:

I know many Democrats voted for him to get revenge on Bush (I sure understand the sentiment) but many others voted for him to get past this partisan crap and get things done that would pragmatically ease America’s economic woes, tackle deep issues such as the debt and healthcare and end the wars responsibly. In my view, that’s his core identity, and why he’s president. Taking on his base as he did yesterday will help him.

And Sullivan cites Gallup’s early polling:

By yielding on the tax cuts, Obama extracted Republican leaders’ support for extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed – and large majorities of independents support both measures. Additionally, according to a post-election Gallup poll, by 49% to 24%, independents are more inclined to favor partisan compromise over principled standoffs in Congress. Thus, rather than get mired in a partisan squabble that could result in higher taxes for the middle class come January, Obama can present himself as the architect of a new era of compromise.

While Republicans generally don’t agree with extending unemployment benefits, they broadly support extending the tax cuts, and at least a slim majority of Democrats support both measures. In fact, the only groups not supporting both proposals are liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. The more moderate members of both parties join independents in generally supporting the proposals.

And there is Bloomberg’s polling – tax cuts for upper-income Americans are not what people want, more than two-thirds of those polled said so.

And Sullivan suggests what should come next:

What’s needed now, of course, is for Obama to pivot from this to using his State of the Union for a major push for long-term debt reduction in the next two years. He’s gotten all the pro-growth spending he needed to get re-elected, now he needs to cement his standing with Independents, centrist Democrats and Republicans, and make saving our fiscal future his overwhelmingly dominant theme of the next two years.

And the rationale is simple. Obama “was elected to tackle the hard stuff, as pragmatically as possible.” That’s what he’s doing. What’s the problem here?

And Obama couldn’t get what he wanted on the Bush tax cuts – that just wasn’t possible – and Jonathan Bernstein offers the best perspective on that, suggesting that the problem is structural:

The truth is that there are a lot of people who just don’t accept that the President of the United States can want something, fight for it, fight effectively and correctly, and still not get it. If it doesn’t happen, it must have been – in Obama’s words – a “betrayal.” Those people are wrong.

And yet it’s awful hard to believe that calling people out on it – his allies, the activists within the Democratic Party – will do him any good.

Perhaps you cannot force perspective on people. Eat your spinach – think of all the starving people in India. Hey, ten years from now you’ll look back on all this and laugh. That sort of thing never works. In some people’s minds Obama will now always be the one who betrayed working-class America. The Republicans were holding working-class America hostage, and Obama caved.

Somehow one is reminded of that silly 1991 movie Speed – Jack, the stolid Keanu Reeves, cleverly rescues the folks on that speeding bus that will surely explode. He doesn’t cave. But there’s that early scene, before anything happens, where he and his buddy Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) are discussing hypothetical hostage tactics, and we get this exchange:

Harry Temple: All right, pop quiz. Airport, gunman with one hostage. He’s using her for cover; he’s almost to a plane. You’re a hundred feet away… Jack?

Jack: Shoot the hostage.

It’s a joke, and the whole movie is about doing the opposite. Obama’s base, and a good part of the Democrats in Congress, is saying shoot the hostage. It’s very curious. The Keanu Reeves character figures out you don’t do that. One can learn perspective. And he gets the girl too.

But that’s a dumb movie. See Noam Scheiber, writing about White House political aides who have been carefully explaining that the president didn’t push hard on a tax deal over the summer, simply because the Senate just didn’t have the votes:

The operatives were rightly put off by the cowardice of Senate Democrats. What they didn’t grasp was the structural advantage of a White House in framing a debate. The West Wing’s reluctance to exploit this advantage was a bitter irony given that polls showed Obama to be highly effective on the tax question as a candidate.

It’s complicated. All the president had to do was frame things right. Kevin Drum is skeptical:

The framing ability of the White House is pretty overrated in general, and it’s especially overrated when the roadblock is a handful of senators who don’t need much of anything from the president and can’t really have their arms twisted. Maybe Obama could have done more, but this was fundamentally a problem with Congress, not the White House.

Well, the president isn’t king. And senators don’t answer to him. It’s that Separation of Powers thing. It’s pretty basic.

And Drum also cites Andrew Sabl on the question of what liberal opponents of the tax deal propose to do next if the whole thing is voted down. Sabl says he doesn’t really have an answer for that, but that his focus is largely on the long term, not the immediate future – “how can we change baseline expectations so as to achieve progressive outcomes in future negotiations?”

And Dave Dayen says this:

I haven’t thought this through carefully, but I think there’s a big problem with this framing. It assumes that our weakness is mostly with negotiating tactics: Democrats need to demonstrate that they’re willing to accept a whole lot of wreckage if they don’t get their way, and once they’ve done that Republicans will realize that they have to start compromising.

Drum see two problems with this:

First, there’s a real asymmetry between liberal and conservative goals. Liberals want active change. This means they can’t just obstruct. They have to figure out a way to build a supermajority coalition for complicated legislation, and that means compromise. And everyone knows this. So compromise is baked into the cake. But conservatives, to a much larger extent, are often okay with simply preventing things from changing, either as their first best or second best position. For that, all you have to do is maintain a very simple position among a minority caucus. No real coalition building or compromise is necessary.

Second, political coalitions are simply too public to sustain an artificial bargaining posture. The problem with the Democratic caucus isn’t that they negotiate badly – it’s that the Democratic caucus is genuinely fractured. And again, everyone knows it. You can’t pretend you’re willing to go to the mat against high-end tax cuts when there are half a dozen Democratic senators who support high-end tax cuts and Republicans know there are half a dozen Democratic senators who support high-end tax cuts. To fix this, you need more liberal Democrats, not tougher leadership.

But Drum also adds this:

I still find myself nearly always supporting compromise positions that genuinely help people in the here and now. The last couple of years have certainly put a dent in that attitude, though. The rich have rubbed our faces a little too hard in the fact that they simply have no interest in what’s good for the country, only what’s good for their own bank accounts.

Still it’s easy to see what happening here. People like Drum, and so many others, are still trying to gain perspective. How do the other guys think? What is the structural nature of the problem? What are we actually dealing with here? What are the totems and all that? It’s hard work.

And of course everyone else is just posturing. Olbermann is particularly good at it, or at least really seems to enjoy it – he seems to love calling people appalling, or stupid, or morally monstrous – but you won’t get anywhere by calling them names and sneering at them, even if you get to be a cable news star. And animosity is not a policy.

And in the end this is about policy. It’s about what you can actually get done. One must have perspective, you see.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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