John Boehner, who has no particular need to be writing Cincinnatti Enquirer op-eds, just wrote one anyway adding a new demand to the fiscal cliff talks. His position is now that the Affordable Care Act “has to stay on the table as both parties discuss ways to solve our nation’s massive debt challenge.”
I think the best way to understand this is in terms of the classic negotiating book Getting To Yes which has as one of its precepts that you need to “focus on interests, not positions.” Except the issue here is that Boehner isn’t looking to get to yes. He’s looking to avoid getting to yes. In terms of broad interests, the White House has already conceded the key Republican point that a deficit reduction deal should be mostly spending cuts relative to baseline with a large share coming from entitlement programs. That’s put the focus on the president’s interest in securing a meaningful revenue contribution overwhelmingly through heavier taxation of the rich.
Boehner doesn’t want to talk about this, since it tends to split his caucus and imperil his leadership.
A smart tactic for shifting the conversation is to try to move from the agreed-upon interest in spending cuts into specific positions. Obama’s going to hesitate to agree to any cuts in the Affordable Care Act, and he’ll be loathe to publicly agree to any ACA cuts as a purely hypothetical matter. If he does that then Boehner yanks the rug on revenue, it’ll become a juicy target in the appropriations process. And frankly Boehner can play this game all day. Republican intransigence on taxes has promoted unity among the ranks of Democrats. But insofar as Boehner can shift the discussion off the broad framework and into specific positions he’s more likely to divide the Democrats.
Of course this same dynamic makes a deal less likely. But the only way to get a deal is for Boehner to split his own caucus over tax hikes, and legislative leaders don’t like to do that. If he can find a way to make a deal less likely while simultaneously taking the focus off the topic of intransigence on taxes, that’s a win-win.