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STARTING WITH A POLITICAL NON-STARTER: AN EXAMPLE OF GENUINE NEGOTIATION

In my forthcoming book on “Reforming American Politics,” I propose three major strategies for a “Way Forward” that could move the current sad state of political discourse from conflict to conversation; the most audacious of which is: In your political activities, always seek for a both/and position relative to any public policy issue that reflects a balanced synthesis of the best insights of those who have disagreements, and encourage political representatives on both sides of the aisle to do likewise.

To take this bit of advice beyond being a pious platitude (or, in the minds of some readers, to demonstrate how unrealistic it is), I will illustrate its application by considering a possible “negotiation” regarding President Trump’s January 19, 2018 proposal on immigration, the highlights of which were as follows:

  •  5.7 billion for steel barriers in priority areas
  •  675 million for increased drug technology at ports of entry
  •  130 million for canine units, including training and more personnel
  •  800 million for humanitarian assistance
  •  782 million for 2750 additional agents
  •  563 million for 75 new immigration judges
  •  Three years of protection for Dreamers
  •  Three years of protection for refugees having Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s immediate reaction (even before Trump’s proposal was officially presented) was to call it a “non-starter,” essentially because it included money for a “wall” (of sorts) and it did not end the government shutdown.

I believe that Pelosi calling Trump’s proposal a non-starter was a mistake. Trump’s proposal may have been a very inadequate proposal and may have been only a re-hash of previous unacceptable proposals. But it was President Trump’s “starting point.” So, to call it a non-starter was to forfeit the possibility of any negotiation that could improve on this starting point.

What might be the substance of such negotiation? I will illustrate in an unusual way; by sharing snippets of a conversation I would like to have with President Trump about selected aspects of his proposal (which of course will not happen), saving for later some reflections on how Pelosi might engage in a similar negotiation (which could happen).

HAROLD: Mister President. I appreciate your returning to your previously expressed concern for the plight of Dreamers; those children of immigrants who were brought to America by their parents at a very young age through no choice of their own. But to only propose a three-year extension of their DACA status is to perpetuate a grave injustice. These Dreamers have not broken any laws and. therefore, deserve no punishment. Justice requires that they be provided with the pathway to citizenship for which you once expressed public support.

Furthermore, Mister President, I appreciate your proposal to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for three years for those who are fleeing natural disasters, persecution (or death) or armed conflicts in their home countries. For me that is another justice issue, since I believe that justice demands that we take the steps necessary to address the needs of other human beings who have been marginalized and oppressed. But this suggests that America take steps to address some of the poor conditions that prevail in these neighboring countries (which is a significant part of the “humanitarian crisis” that you refer to; which I believe should be the major focus of the 800 million in “humanitarian assistance” that you have proposed).

PRESIDENT TRUMP: I will consider the concerns and remedies you have expressed. But will you likewise consider some of my major concerns and proposed remedies? For example, we need to increase border security in ways that will minimize illegal immigration and combat the flow of drugs into our country. And many of our border agents tell me that some type of physical barrier (a wall or whatever) are needed at certain segments of the border to help achieve these results.

HAROLD: I agree with the need for improved border security, which could take the form of more physical barriers at selected places along the border, as well as other means, such as greater use of technology. But if the primary concern is with the flow of drugs into America, we will need to increase the use of drug detection technology at legal points of entry, such as airports, since that is where the major flow of drugs takes place.

But my agreement with you about the need for greater border security and the need to curtail the flow of drugs into America masks our significant disagreements as to the magnitude of the funding that is needed to address these problems. You propose 5.7 billion for “steel barriers” in “priority areas” along the border, plus approximately another 2.2 billion for other measures that you perceive as necessary to improve border security. My initial thinking is to agree with the proposal from Democrats that a total of about 1 billion should be spent on border security measures. We are obviously miles apart on the funding needed to improve border security and how this funding should be used. This suggests that we both need to go back to the drawing board. To get that re-thinking started, let us split the difference as to total funding; assuming that a total of 4.45 billion is available (halfway between 1 billion and 7.9 billion). We both need to develop new proposals as to how that 4.45 billion is best spent to improve border security.

To end this imaginary conversation at this point would be to ignore the huge elephant in the room, the partial government shutdown. So, I can imagine our conversation continuing as follows:

HAROLD: Even if we can reach some kind of agreement relative to the changes in your starting proposal that I outline above, we appear to be at an impasse relative to the  government shutdown for which you have publicly taken responsibility.  You call for legislative action on your starting proposal before re-opening the government. I believe the government shutdown must be ended immediately.

My argument for ending the government shutdown immediately is another justice argument. To be sure, the concept of “justice” is “contested,” with room for disagreement as to what it means to “do justice.” But if one starts with the general view that doing justice calls for treating all people “fairly,” then, despite some legitimate disagreements about the meaning of “fairness,” there is no way to argue that it is “fair” for a government employee to be deprived of the means to keep food on the table or medicine in the cabinet because of a political dispute about immigration. Government workers who are no longer being paid have done nothing to deserve that punishment. That is a clear injustice. To make matters worse, there is also strong evidence that national security and even the strong American economy are being increasingly compromised by the shutdown.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: If I give in on the government shutdown, there will be no incentive for Democrats to vote for any of the changes in border security or related immigration issues that I have proposed. If I end the government shutdown, there will be no reason for the Democrats to come to the negotiating table.

HAROLD: I understand your concern, but the Democrats have made it clear that they  will not negotiate until you end the shutdown. And any plans to have the Senate and the House approve separate plans that the other chamber will reject is a dead end exercise in political posturing.

There may be a way out of this impasse. Rather than having each party meet in private to develop plans that the other party will clearly reject, which seems to be the current approach and is clearly not “negotiation,” exert your presidential leadership by declaring that you will end the shutdown on the condition that a bipartisan approach to genuine negotiation about immigration issues be followed in both chambers of Congress, similar to the way in which a bipartisan “gang of eight” Senators came up with a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. To those who question that bipartisan approach because the Senate immigration bill of 2013 died in the house, I respond that this may have been because the House rejected the “bipartisan negotiation” approach that worked in the Senate.

Now that I have ended my imaginary conversation with President Trump. I may have only convinced most readers that I am totally out of touch with political reality, which is true if you accept the adequacy of the current way of doing politics, which I do not. So. I will close this Musing with some reflections on the example of “political negotiation” presented above that anticipates some possible objections from readers.

THE WAY PRESIDENT TRUMP TALKS TO OR ABOUT THOSE WHO DISAGREE WITH HIM DOES NOT FIT WITH THE WORDS YOU HAVE PUT INTO HIS MOUTH

You are correct about that! The words I put into President Trump’s mouth in the above imaginary conversation were meant to focus on the message, not the messenger. For example, I avoided what he might have said as an impulsive response to my suggestion that his proposal for only extending relief for Dreamers for another three years was inadequate, which could well have been to vilify me for even suggesting that idea. Such a harsh response could prematurely end the conversation before it hardly got started.

The tone of my words and the words I have put into President Trump’s mouth in the above example reflect, without apology, the way I believe persons who have disagreements about political issues, or anything else, should talk to one another about their disagreements, As I elaborate in the closing chapter of my forthcoming book, this belief flows from my deep commitment to certain underlying values like love, humility, respect, patience, hope and an unswerving commitment to seek after the “truth” about the issue at hand. As one who aspires to be a follower of Jesus, my commitment to these values flows from my understanding that they reflect the teachings of the Christian faith. In particular, I believe that a deep expression of the love for others to which Jesus calls those who aspire to be his followers is to create a safe and welcoming space for the other persons to express disagreements and then to talk respectfully about the nature of of our disagreements. But these values to which I am committed are not just “Christian values”; they are “human values” that all persons of good will should embrace.

 

But there is little evidence that President Trump embraces these values. His first impulse is to vilify anyone who disagrees with him. That is wrong in and of itself.  But it is also an ineffective political strategy. There is great wisdom in the proverbial teaching that “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).

So, what would I do if in an actual conversation with President Trump, he vilified me? I would not respond in kind (as one person has put it, I would not allow him to determine my behavior). I would still present the arguments I present above, assuming that President Trump does not walk away from the negotiating table. If he storms out on me, that is his choice. But that leads me to reflect a bit on how Nancy Pelosi could, in actuality, engage in the type of negotiation that I imagine above.

WHAT COULD NANCY PELOSI DO WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP’S NON-STARTER?

I have no idea if Nancy Pelosi shares any of the arguments that I have included in my imaginary conversation with President Trump, which focus on my understanding of what it means to “do justice.” But she could present her own arguments in opposition to Trump’s proposal and counter with her own alternative proposals, which is what negotiation should be all about.

But, having said that, I would commend for Pelosi’s consideration my proposal for trying to break the current impasse about whether the current government shutdown needs to end before any negotiations can begin by suggesting to President Trump that he should end the shutdown on the condition that some type of bipartisan approach to negotiation be taken, similar to what the Senate “gang of eight” did in 2013. 

I close this Musing with two general recommendations that I believe are pertinent to engaging in genuine negotiations with those with whom you disagree on immigration issues (which I believe are also applicable to disagreements about anything else).

DON’T POLTICIZE EVERYTHING 

In an Adult Discipleship class that I was leading at my home church, I asked attendees to express their beliefs about President Trump’s proposal a while back to curtail the family reunification component of immigration. To a person, attendees parroted what the political party they belonged to said about that issue, with Republicans preferring to use the phrase “chain migration.” But I wasn’t asking them what their political party of choice believed about this program. I was asking them what they believed the Bible taught that might be relevant to this issue.

The prominent mistake that my Christian attendees were making was to substitute a “political lens” for a “Christian lens.” To quickly politicize every issue is a common mistake for Christians and everyone else.  

I intentionally avoided making that mistake in my imaginary conversation. I did this by avoiding any reference to either my political party (Democrat) or President Trump’s political party. Rather, I drove the conversation down to a more foundational level by seeking to uncover the operative value commitments that inform the beliefs of the two conversation partners. (in this conversation the meaning of the value of “justice” being the key issue).

Of course, not all citizens share my value commitments as a Christian. Therefore, at this deep level of conversation, disagreements as to the adequacy of differing value commitments still abound. But at least the debate is being carried out at a deeper level than “what does my political party say.”

HAVE THE COURAGE TO RISK MAKING EVERYONE UNHAPPY

I imagine that my proposal in my imaginary conversation with President Trump that funding for all border security measures be limited to about 4.45 billion rather than the 7.9 billion proposed by President Trump or the 1 billion proposed by Democrats will make both Democrats and Republicans unhappy. So be it!

The scourge of contemporary politics is tribalism, an “us-versus them” mentality where “my party” has the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the issue at hand and those in the “other party” are all wrong, at best, or downright evil, at worst.

Such tribalists will not settle for “half a loaf;” it’s “my way or the highway.” Such extremists, in either political party, eschew any attempts to reach across the aisle to seek a balanced synthesis of the best insights from both parties. What scares me most about the current political scene is the gradual disappearance of “moderate” politicians who reject tribalism, the root cause of which is that doing politics has become more about getting elected than governing well.

Therefore, my call for “genuine negotiation” about disagreements in the political realm may not gain much traction in a culture that is becoming increasingly tribalistic. But, given my value commitments as a professing Christian, it is the right thing for me to do.

[Authors Note: What a difference half-a-day can make when it comes to political discourse. I composed the above Musing on the morning of January 25, when the government was shut down. Half a day later, the government shutdown was revoked for three weeks. Although that makes some aspects of the above reflections inapplicable, I decided to post this Musing for two reasons. First, this piece still illustrates my understanding of how “genuine negotiation” should be carried out toward the goal of seeking for a both/and position relative to a public policy issue that draws on the best insights of those on both sides of the political aisle. Secondly, who knows what may happen in the next three weeks. The government may again be subject to another shutdown, in which case my recommendation that President Trump not propose such a shutdown provided that both chambers of Congress agree to “bipartisan negotiation” (such as carried out by the Senate gang of eight” in 2013) may be relevant].

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