Democrats Could Learn From Sanders’ Negotiating Skills

Finally, it has happened. Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton for president this morning in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

“Hillary Clinton understands that we must fix an economy in America that is rigged and that sends almost all new wealth and income to the top one percent,” Sanders said in the middle of his endorsement speech. “Hillary Clinton understands that if someone in America works 40 hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty.”

Sanders’ enthusiastic backing for Clinton will bring a lot for the Democrats’ soon-to-be nominee. Not all of his most ardent supporters will vote for Clinton, but most of his coalition will. And it will be much easier for them now with Sanders making an explicit case for her presidency, along with the knowledge that Sanders achieved real concessions from the DNC’s platform, now the most progressive ever.

Going forward, lessons from that platform debate might be the the most important gift Sanders can give Clinton – how to win policy fights. Because if she wants to have a successful presidency, she’ll need to be much tougher at the negotiating table in her first few years in office than President Barack Obama was in his.

Throughout his presidency, Obama was often criticized for seeming to “negotiate with himself” on major policy issues in Congress. He would give in early on key Democratic demands so as to come off reasonable.

During the discussion over the Bush tax cuts following the 2010 election, Obama’s aides indicated they’d be willing to do a temporary extension of all the tax cuts, even for the wealthiest – before Obama actually began negotiations with Republicans.

During the push to create the Affordable Care Act, Obama largely ceded the leadership on the issue to Senator Max Baucus, a moderate Democrat who undercut the efforts for tighter regulations of healthcare industry and the possibility of the public option. The White House seemed to think they were giving responsible deference to the Senate. Instead, they got a dragged-out process that allowed conservatives time to attack and make the program very unpopular early on with voters. And the eventual product was water-downed enough that progressives weren’t as excited as they could be about it. Both those forces led to the blowout election losses in 2010.

The Washington Post reported on Obama’s eventual shift in strategy, which didn’t really come about until after his re-election:

Previously, Obama’s pattern had been to offer plans that roughly tracked where he thought the compromise should end up. The White House’s belief was that by being solicitous in their policy proposals, they would win goodwill on the other side, and even if they didn’t, the media would side with them, realizing they’d sought compromise and been rebuffed.

By that time, however, it was too late. One could understand Obama’s initial hope for a new kind of D.C., where politicians of both sides worked together, buoyed by a more hopeful electorate that sent Obama into office. But when the Republicans punched him in the face over and over again, one would think he would have given up on that approach a little sooner.

The result was a presidency that accomplished some real, meaningful policy improvements for America, but could have done so much more. And the White House (and national Democrats’ as a whole) complete political mishandling of the past seven years produced two consecutive midterm wipeouts, which had the effect of producing a net-rightward shift in policy at the state level throughout the country. Which meant you had depressed and frustrated progressives.

It also means a House of Representatives that might stay Republican for a long time. So if Republicans are going to remain intractable and obstructionist, different tactics must be employed to break the logjam. Democrats can blame Republicans all they want for trying to shut down the government, but if Democrats are completely unable to find a way to make the GOP pay politically, then they too are at fault for our broken government.

If Hillary Clinton is elected president this November, she’ll face an extremely hostile and combative Republican Party. There will be no First 100 Days honeymoon period. They’ll do everything in their power to damage her daily in the hopes of defeating her in 2020. If Clinton employs the same type of political strategy that Obama did in his first four years, the Republicans will very likely succeed.

So maybe Clinton should look to her former rival Sanders on how good negotiating tactics work. Many political pundits and Clinton backers criticized Sanders for not dropping out after the last primary states voted (or earlier when it was clear he couldn’t win). They thought he had given up the political capital he’d won by antagonizing Clinton.

And then he went on to win major victories at the platform committee meetings. And yes, it’s the platform, which can easily be ignored, but it’s one more instance where Sanders can point to the Democratic base moving left in order to hold elected officials accountable.

Sanders’ backers organized for months and refused to give barely any ground in their efforts to include stronger language on healthcare, trade, minimum wage, climate change and a host of other issues. They accepted minor agreements here and there to come up with language that both sides could agree to, but for the most part stuck to their guns. The Sanders supporters lost out on some issues, including TPP and fracking. But on others, like a $15/hour minimum wage, Wall Street reform measures and Social Security expansion, Sanders won and moved the platform much further to the left.

And he proved wrong many of those doubting his strategy, like Jamelle Bouie in Slate:

Last month, I wrote that Sanders was losing his leverage—that Clinton’s consolidation of liberal voters and Democratic Party actors had worn down his ability to pull the party to the left. That assessment, rooted in Clinton’s rapid ascent against Donald Trump in national polling, was wrong. Instead, through tight marshaling of his supporters and delegates, Sanders waged a successful fight to produce the most liberal Democratic platform in a generation.

House Democrats are already implementing this type of “get-tough” mentality in the push for gun safety legislation. Democrats across the country were ecstatic to see the sit-in on the House floor. Did it accomplish more than some media coverage? Maybe not, but at least it showed Democrats had some real fight in them. And the theatrics shines more light on the issue, moves more voters and puts more pressure on Republicans to act.

Would it be preferable to live in a government where both sides came together and had reasonable debate and passed meaningful legislation that improved the country? Sure, but that’s not the America we live in right now. That’s not the Republican Party we’re dealing with. And until they’re defeated, or forced into compromising by the public, you’re not going to get anything done.

Sanders accomplished a lot with his presidential run – the greatest may be giving Democrats the roadmap forward in how to fight tough in negotiations with a polarized government so that progress is finally made.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 7/12/16


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *