Negotiating Advice for Congressional Democrats in the Era of Trump

Negotiators in a position of weakness can gain leverage by offering aid to their opponents

By on / Negotiation Skills

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, with Republicans poised to control the White House and both houses of Congress, Democrats in Washington are struggling to determine how they will go about meeting their goals in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Some, like Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, are identifying issues on which they might be able to negotiate with president-elect Donald Trump, such as infrastructure spending and paid maternity leave, the New York Times reports.

Others are categorically refusing to negotiate with Trump on any issue, reports Jennifer Bendery in the Huffington Post. Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona, for example, told Bendery that he had already decided he would be unable to work with or trust Trump due to his rhetoric during the presidential campaign. Some progressive special-interest groups are also putting the pressure on congressional Democrats to refuse to make deals with Trump.

That would be a strategic mistake for Democrats, and for any negotiator in a position of weakness, writes Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra in a new Harvard Business Review article. Rather than fighting Republicans on every issue or, conversely, assuming they have no leverage to negotiate at all, Democrats need to take a more nuanced view of the political landscape, Malhotra argues. Specifically, Democrats should identify issues on which they will have to accept short-term losses, issues where they have much more leverage than they think, and issues where they should fight hard for their constituents’ interests.

Malhotra’s in-depth assessment of key political issues is rooted in ideas from his recent book Negotiating the Impossible, which offers practical advice to all negotiators who believe they are in a hopelessly weak bargaining position.

In particular, Malhotra offers five principles that can benefit virtually anyone facing difficult negotiations from a seeming position of weakness, including Democrats in Congress:

  1. Know your weakness, but focus on theirs. Negotiators who are acutely conscious of their own weak position tend to perform worse than those who are aware of their vulnerabilities but instead choose to focus on the other side’s weak spots. When preparing to negotiate, assess not only your own weaknesses but the limits to other side’s power as well.
  2. Shape the narrative. The story we tell interested observers about the negotiation landscape can significantly affect our ability to attract followers and form winning coalitions, writes Malhotra. Democrats, for example, would be wise to try to move the country beyond the current, dominant narrative that Hillary Clinton was out of touch with the working class; instead, they could tell the story about how Clinton won the popular vote by a significant margin.
  3. If you can create value, you have leverage. We tend to assume that in negotiation, power comes from money, votes, control over resources, and so on. Though this is all true, power also comes from our ability to create value for the other party. By meeting a counterpart’s key interests or solving critical problems for them, you can gain the leverage you need to advance your own interests.
  4. Pick your battles. When your bargaining power is limited, carefully choose which priorities to focus on, or you risk spreading yourself too thin, warns Malhotra. Like any team or coalition facing a strong partner, Democrats seeking to gain ground during the Trump presidency should unite behind the legislative and policy priorities where they could make gains.
  5. “They win” does not equal “you lose.” The type of zero-sum attitude that some members of Congress are taking toward potential negotiations with Trump is ultimately self-defeating, according to Malhotra. By collaborating with Republicans, including Trump, on issues they agree on, Democrats are more likely to build bridges that help them achieve their own objectives.

 In his Harvard Business Review article, Malhotra applies these five principles to pressing legislative and policy battles that Congress is facing, which he classifies according to how likely Democrats are to get what they want. For example, since being elected, Trump has already signaled a willingness to compromise on his stated campaign goal of repealing the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), perhaps in recognition of the political obstacles to doing so. If they’re wise, Democrats will recognize that Republicans in Congress will find it difficult to find consensus on how to revise the law. If Democrats agree to participate in the negotiations to reform Obamacare, they will be in position to extract valuable concessions and shape policy in a way that aligns with their vision of universal health care, argues Malhotra.

There are times when you find a negotiating counterpart so abhorrent that you prefer to abandon your own goals rather than do business with him or her. Democrats have that option. But when you are negotiating on behalf of others—as politicians do for their constituents—a better choice may be to show up at the bargaining table and keep an eye on how best to achieve what is in the interest of those you represent. That may require you to fight. It might require you to negotiate. You need to be prepared to do both.

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