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It’s Not ‘Squabbling’
When politicians ‘bicker,’ they’re really negotiating.


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Michael Barone

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank attracted some attention when he promised not to mention Sarah Palin for a month. He kept his promise. The republic and the Post survived.

I’ve got a similar proposal for political columnists and reporters. Let’s ban the verbs “bicker” and “squabble” — not for a month, but forever.

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You’ve seen those verbs often if you’ve been reading about the budget struggles between the Republican-controlled House, the Democratic-majority Senate, and the strangely detached Obama White House.

The implication is negative. Children bicker. Small-minded people squabble. When you use those verbs to describe the actions or words of John Boehner, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama, you are implying that they are arguing about trifles.

But they’re not. They’re arguing about big things, vast flows of money, public policies with real consequences.

Yes, there is a certain amount of posturing and tactical advocacy. In every politician, there is some mixture of calculation and conviction — in varying proportions.

But it’s pretty clear that in the negotiations over the budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, John Boehner and Harry Reid were arguing about big things. That will be the case, if not more so, in upcoming negotiations over raising the debt limit and establishing a budget for fiscal year 2012.

The fact is that the Obama Democrats increased the size and scope of government beyond anything ever seen except in World War II. The Republicans are trying to reverse this trend. Far from arguing about trivia, both Democrats and Republicans are arguing about the most fundamental issues of domestic public policy.

Reporters who use the verbs “bicker” and “squabble” seem to believe that it is silly for opposing parties to waste their time negotiating — they should just split the difference at the beginning. You can see something like this feeling in the polls showing majorities of voters “disgusted” with politicians.

Why don’t they quit arguing and get it over with?

The reason, as anyone who has ever negotiated anything knows, is that negotiations do tend to go on almost to deadline.

This makes sense when you think about it. Concede one issue long before the deadline, and the other side will usually pocket the concession and ask for more. So you wait for the other side to make concessions first, and that wait usually takes you close to the deadline.

Consumers of news stories should be able to understand this. Most of us are used to working to deadline. We usually don’t get things done until we have to. The dry cleaner doesn’t have your stuff ready a day before the promised date.

Moreover, negotiating tends to prod each side to indicate which demands it really cares about. In the fiscal-year-2011 negotiations, for example, it became clear Democrats cared more about funding Planned Parenthood than Republicans did about defunding it. So Democrats had to agree to additional cuts in order to keep money flowing to the nation’s leading abortion provider.

Some labor-management contracts have provisions to avoid such showdowns. One approach is to require both sides to submit an offer and let an arbitrator choose one or the other — but not something in the middle. The idea is to give an incentive to both sides to make modest and reasonable demands, rather than set out a maximalist position and hope the arbitrator splits the difference.



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