To Lead Is to Negotiate

Acrimony, insults, the government shut down. Time to talk to a wise man, someone from the days when government worked. I turned to the famous Mr. Baker—James A. Baker III, U.S secretary of state (1989-92), secretary of the Treasury (1985-88) and White House chief of staff under Ronald Reagan (1981-85) and George H.W. Bush (1992-93). He spoke, by phone, from his Houston office at the law firm Baker Botts.

Looking at Washington, “I’m seeing, frankly, a sad situation.” A brief shutdown won’t be terrible—there had already been 17, he notes, since 1976, eight when he was at the White House or Treasury. But the longer this one lasts the more dangerous it will become.

The political problem: The president is failing to lead. His refusal to negotiate with Republicans over spending and the debt limit is “an obstinate position, it’s not a leadership position.” The Republicans made a mistake early on with a “maximalist” position on ObamaCare—they could not realistically achieve their aim of defunding when the Democrats hold the White House and Senate. But the president’s position is a “pretty damn maximalist position itself, and people will say that.”

Presidents, he notes, always negotiate in order to get an increase in the debt limit—it’s their job. “It’s a failure of leadership to say, ‘I’m just gonna sit here while the government remains closed,’ or, with respect to the debt limit, ‘I’ll sit here and not negotiate and the catastrophic consequences I warned you of will just have to happen.’ . . . He has the burden of moving forward. He’s the leader of the country. He has to get the debt limit raised to avoid default.”

Yet the GOP too bears responsibility for the impasse. “I don’t think it was a very wise strategy for we Republicans to say we would not fund the government unless we defunded ObamaCare. I don’t think that’s a smart political strategy, and I think we’ll pay a price for it. . . . If you’re gonna make your stand, make your stand on something you can accomplish.” When he worked for Reagan, he’d come back from a negotiation saying, “I think we can get this,” and it was never all the president wanted. “Reagan would say, ‘I’d rather get 80% of what I want than go over the cliff with my flag flying.'”

President Ronald Reagan and Chief of Staff James Baker
President Ronald Reagan and Chief of Staff James Baker in 1981, strategizing in the Oval Office about getting a tax plan passed.

Mr. Baker says two GOP-backed changes to ObamaCare hold promise. “House Republicans are not wrong when they say we ought to eliminate the special privileges that members of Congress and their staffs have. . . . That would be tremendously popular in the country.” The public also would support, and Democrats would likely back, eliminating the ObamaCare tax on medical devices.

He returns to the leadership problem: “When a president doesn’t control both sides of Congress he has to deal with the other party. Ronald Reagan did it almost every day with Tip O’Neill.” Nonnegotiation is bad politics. “Suppose we get past this budget debate and Oct. 17 get into a fight on the debt limit. I’m not certain the American people would not penalize the administration.”

What should President Obama do? Own it. Lead. “Leading would be to call [Speaker John] Boehner in: ‘All right, this is a sorry situation for our country. Come on here and let’s talk about resolving it.'” In this negotiation they should first explore an agreement on getting rid of the special provisions for Congress. Second, they could move to come to agreement on eliminating the medical device tax.

“Resolve this thing by getting into a room and making the government work. The leader of our government should be willing to get into a room and sit down with the opposition.”

Why doesn’t Mr. Obama do this? Baker spoke of “obstinacy” and political calculation. “This White House thinks it’s got a bird’s nest on the ground because we Republicans overreached when we said defund ObamaCare.” The president thinks this works for him. “He could turn out to be right, and he could turn out to be wrong.” Democrats “think this is a great political strategy. I’m not sure it is if it continues too long, particularly if it segues into the debt limit and he doesn’t negotiate.” The White House meeting of the president and congressional leaders Wednesday night does not qualify as a negotiation. “They didn’t do anything but parrot their respective positions.”

Ronald Reagan faced a fiercely Democratic house throughout both terms of his presidency. “Those days were bitter, but we got into a room and we thrashed it out. The ‘Gang of Five,’ the ‘Gang of 17’—we worked it out, each side gave a little, and we got the government working. Reagan—as you know, he had the reputation of being a conservative ideologue. But he wasn’t, he was pragmatic.” He worked with the other side and “won them over.” How? “Horse trading, compromise and negotiation made the government work.” Bill Clinton too “was willing to negotiate when he had a body controlled by the opposite party.”

When people speak of Reagan and O’Neill, I said, it always comes across as covered over by nostalgia, as if the two were magical. “Hell no, I’m talking about practicality. Reagan, believe it or not—one reason he was so successful was he was pragmatic. He did what he needed to do to get things done.”

Could Reagan have controlled today’s GOP? “I think yes, he could have. You bet. Yeah, he would have.” How? Baker’s answer seemed to be: Through a personal application of peace through strength. “Somebody asked me about the tea party, ‘Ya think Reagan would have [been at odds with] them or been in sync with them?’ I think, Reagan would have probably led the charge! But remember how it was when he first came in. He understood that we judge our presidents . .  on the basis of what elements of their programs they get accomplished legislatively, how they make the government run, how they lead.”

A sound strategy for the Republicans going forward would involve a shift in public perception. People will see the issue one way when they believe House Republicans are unwilling to pass a budget because of ObamaCare. When people see the issue as the president refusing to negotiate with House Republicans on the issue of the debt limit, things will change. The president’s refusal to negotiate “could change the political calculus, the more so the longer it goes. . . . My political antennae tell me when the debate becomes the failure of our leader to negotiate . . . the mood of the country could flip.” That would look like a true “abdication of leadership.”

Does he worry about how all this is making America look in the world? “Yeah, sure, of course. It makes us look like we don’t have our act together. And I guess you could say we don’t.”

He notes that Mr. Obama used to speak of how he admired Reagan. But Reagan tackled big problems—fundamental tax reform, fixing Social Security. “Why doesn’t he do what Reagan did?”