Why the Fiscal Cliff Negotiations Are More Complicated than We Think

This isn't just a two-party conflict. It's an obstacle course with two fractious teams that requires complicated strategies

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TOBY JORRIN / AFP / Getty Images

House Speaker John Boehner listens to President Barack Obama before a budget meeting at the White House in Washington on Nov. 16, 2012.

The fiscal cliff negotiations have the feel of a major sporting event. The media largely describe the cliff as a two-party conflict, with each side having a fighter in the ring. What House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama say — and don’t say — is decoded and analyzed, interpreted as posturing and signaling, punching and counterpunching. Who has leverage? Who doesn’t? Who will win? Who will lose?

In fact, what’s going on is quite different, and more like an obstacle course for which Boehner and Obama are leading fractious teams. Because the parties, particularly the GOP, are divided internally, negotiations within each party are apt to be at least as difficult and time consuming as those across the aisle. Leaders on both sides will have to persuade majorities to live with trades that deliver something important in exchange for concessions on other issues (trading tax increases for a commitment to entitlement reform, for example). Roger Fisher, author of the famous Getting to Yes, called this the “inside out” problem of negotiations.

(MORE: Entitlement Cuts Loom as Obstacle to Fiscal Cliff Deal)

Within each party there are not just two but multiple divisions, so negotiators face what’s called a multiparty context, which requires a particular strategy: analyzing which groups they might win over on the basis of diverse goals. On the right, some members of Congress care most about the size of government, others want to reduce and simplify taxes, and still others advocate maintaining a strong defense. On the left, some seek more-progressive taxes, others focus on protecting the poor, and still others defend current entitlement programs. (Of course, not everyone can be neatly pigeonholed into a group, which only adds to the difficulty of the analysis.) And the complexity of the issues under negotiation — tax rates and deductions, entitlement programs, defense and discretionary spending — make it hard for legislators to know exactly what they are committing to until they see a bill drafted.

In order to tackle the inside-out problem, negotiators must solve the representation riddle. Who actually speaks for each group? Who has the influence to deliver other votes? The person making the most appearances on Fox and CNN may not always have the gravitas and credibility to shepherd colleagues to a “yes” behind closed doors. As diplomats and salespeople know, winning commitments from the wrong partners can lead to agreements that fall apart — sometimes spectacularly — when promises cannot be delivered.

(MORE: Why We Should Go Over the Fiscal Cliff)

To succeed in such a daunting environment, negotiators can deploy three tools. First, they can use proxies to float multiple packages simultaneously to assess the viability of each one and solicit possible improvements. Both sides need flexibility to explore combinations of options across the major issues, to test whether and how each deal might garner sufficient support.

Second, as a potential deal package begins to emerge, negotiators can switch to a “single text” technique — working from one written document and inserting language and clauses that make the deal palatable to enough factions. Sitting side by side and working to iron out objectionable language or deadlines can help massage the agreement into final form.

Finally, negotiators can equip their counterparts with arguments they can comfortably make to their supporters. The more help the Democrats can give to their colleagues across the aisle in justifying a deal — perhaps for national strength and security, even if it means abandoning earlier positions about not raising taxes — the better. Negotiations end successfully when all sides can claim victory.

MORE: It’s Time to Make Taxes Nontoxic