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January 18, 2019

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How to bridge differences through carefully crafted compromises

Both the ongoing Brexit mess in Great Britain and the continuing government shutdown in the United States are evidence of how “failed state” status can be achieved even by the so-called “modern democracies.”

The tactic that President Trump has chosen — in essence, my way or the highway — is akin to the rumored automotive “game” of Chicken when I was young: Two drivers face off at a distance and then accelerate towards each other, and the one who veers off first has been proven to be a “chicken.” (Less emphasized is that he — I never knew a girl dumb enough to engage in this kind of activity — is at least an alive chicken.)

This is really where we are with the current standoff between the president and the Democrats in Congress, although with hostages — the furloughed and non-paid federal workers — who are paying the price the rest of us are not. Although I suspect Niccolo Machiavelli might have approved this tactic as something that might be used in extremis, even he would not have endorsed its use as a basic “negotiating” tactic. For, despite how the president plays it, he is not using it to “negotiate” but, rather, to force a surrender.

This is a very risky, and ultimately always costly, tactic precisely because it does not leave the other side any way out, any way to “save face.” So why does this matter, especially if you believe that the reason for the president’s stance is damned important?

For several reasons, but especially because it is always foolish in human relations, as well as dangerous, to essentially humiliate your opponent. Making an enemy of someone is hardly wise. Furthermore, there will always be a tomorrow in which you will need today’s opponent — or, at the least, some of them — to join you on another issue.

At least as important, however, is the reality that if you succeed — or, I concede, from the point of view of the president’s supporters, back down — then the “winner” will be tempted in the future to try the same tactic again. After all, it worked once! And the opponents know this as well. As I look back at the long period from when I first entered politics in the late ‘60s to the present, it is very clear that we ran over some crucial “safety rails” — in manners of dealing with those with whom we disagree (on some or many things) — long ago. The ideological basis for this is that of the far right, which preaches the kind of black-white reasoning, “we’re right and you’re wrong” approach to practically every issue.

The operational basis, however, belongs to Newt Gingrich, a true political villain in my opinion, for it was he who preached approaching political matters as but another form of warfare. Opponents became enemies, compromise became betraying, and the only thing that really mattered was gaining — and maintaining — power. Since the 1990s, the Republican Party, in particular, has embraced this perspective, not only at the federal level but in many states as well.

While the United States has always had its “hot button” issues, these, too, seem to have multiplied greatly in recent decades. Abortion, guns, gay and transgender people and immigrants have all assumed the status of divisive issues about which it seems to be impossible to converse without shouting. Sides are taken, lines drawn that cannot be transgressed, and we all sort ourselves accordingly, referring to those on the “other side” as incredibly ignorant and stupid, or worse.

Elusive solution

This is “where” we are, the true context of the long-playing, seemingly unending, Trump show. In this context, his stance on his beloved wall is hardly surprising. It, sadly, “fits” the current political mood and, while polls show that healthy majorities of Americans reject both his call for “the wall” and his non-negotiable (always passed off as, in fact, negotiating) stance, it is his unyielding base that gives him support and “room” for him to continue his position.

Let me make this perfectly clear: I do not like the man. I also think he is, in fact, a miserable negotiator.

Nonetheless, I am deeply troubled by the ongoing cost to the federal employees who are not being paid — most of whom, like most Americans today, live very close to from paycheck to paycheck — as well as by the deterioration of essential services and harm being done to our natural resources. Furthermore, I am not pleased with the Democrats, either, for they, too, have contributed to the “all or nothing” position of the president.

Since surrendering is not something any of us would like to do, how might we transform the situation into something other than win/lose? It seems to me that it is essential that the substance of the dispute must be expanded in such a way that it becomes attractive to consider options.

First, while most Americans do not support the president’s approach, nor swallow the believability of his rhetoric, they are concerned about the issue of persons entering our country illegally.

Second, while it is a fact that the number of persons entering the country illegally has declined markedly over the past several years (including during the Obama years), there are millions of people in the United States who arrived extra-legally.

Third, because of the importance of really addressing what to do with those currently here illegally, the need to ensure that our borders are reasonably secure, and the equally important moral issue of framing wise and humane immigration policy, the Democrats should propose a generous package deal that encompasses all of these matters.

Fourth, while this package should not and could not solve all of these issues, it could promise: a) substantially increased resources for border security, the precise allocation of which be distributed in line with recommendations from border security experts, but including, where appropriate, the reinforcement, replacement or building of physical barriers (the president’s Wall); b) the promise to establish a joint Senate-House committee to study how best to deal with persons currently in the country illegally, and to confer with the administration regularly in the preparation of appropriate legislation; and c) the appointment of Senate and House committees to redraw immigration policies for the future.

While the second and third components of this approach would take from a few to several years to come to fruition, with the appointment of the right people to those committees we could eventually see the emergence of wise and humane policies with which a healthy majority of Americans could agree.

On the first item, for practical and political realities, the time-line would have to be much shorter. I would make sure that the suggested amount of additional funds dedicated to border security would be greater than the amount the president is currently seeking for “the Wall,” and I would also add something to the extent that “an amount no greater than US$6 billion of this appropriation shall be used for upgrading, replacing or adding to physical barriers over the next two fiscal years.”

This would allow the president to claim that his major goal had been achieved without looking in the nature or extent of those barriers. In turn, this would allow the Congress to claim that their wishes to look at the several interrelated issues was also being achieved.

Less than perfectly clean, but not a bad way to substantively claim a “win-win.”

Would the president accept this? I have no way of knowing. I do believe, however, that it would be helpful if Democrats would stop figuratively sticking him in the eye every time they speak about this issue. The adage about “a little honey working better than some vinegar” is true.

I learned a long time ago on the City Council, and had it repeatedly hammered into me in my nine years in the Legislature: When you find yourself at an impasse, create a new route.

Let’s hope that someone, for the sake of the furloughed workers, the languishing immigrants and refugees, and the American people who deeply desire real solution, will soon do so!

Greg Cusack is a retired US statesman.


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