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December 3rd, 2012
11:45 AM ET

Letters to the President #1414: 'Breaking the impasse'

Reporter's Note: President Obama’s Democrats and the Republicans are celebrating the holiday season by furiously insulting each other over the fiscal cliff negotiations. What fun!

Dear Mr. President,

The more I look it over, the more I am convinced that you and your Republican pals do not face a budget issue right now. You face a trust issue. Neither of you believe that the other is dealing in a forthright manner on this matter of the fiscal cliff and that mistrust is crippling any and all attempts to reach an agreement.

Think about it. You’re all smart folks. You’re all (presumably) interested in leading the country toward better days, with a stable economy and a sustainable government. I have not a doubt in the world that if the most reasonable members of your party and the most reasonable members of the Republican party were locked in a room and told they could not…oh say, attend any fundraisers until they came up with a deal, we’d have one by lunchtime. Sure, they’d have to make some tough choices and each side would have to give up something, but they’d work it out.

And yet free from that instant demand for action, what we have instead is both sides pulling their hair, running in circles, and howling that economic Armageddon is looming. Maybe the Mayans have it right.

But I don’t think so. I think the key here is that neither side is being truly open and honest. Neither party wants to say clearly, publically, and specifically what it wants for fear that a) if the party does not get what it is after, that will look like a loss or b) any admission of actual goals will give a negotiating advantage to the opposition. Yes, both sides are laying out very broad goals, but they’re also carefully obscuring the details, and in this debate details really matter.

You know what I think you need? A single document negotiation. You need one trusted emissary…or small bipartisan team…that takes a single sheet of paper and starts going between the two sides. First one side writes down specifically what it wants, then the other side responds with what it wants. Back and forth the document goes with each side adjusting it each time to a level that that side can accept. No press conferences. No inflammatory statements. And if you finally reach the point where both sides agree to what is written on the paper, then…and only then…the leaders of both parties can appear, standing side by side, taking equal credit for averting the crisis. No one loses. Everyone wins.

That is what cooperation and governance is about; not finding ways to blame the opposition for why things went wrong, but rather finding ways to make things go right. At least, I’ve always thought it ought to be that way. Best of luck with it all. Hope the idea helps.

Btw-My Christmas lighting ordeal continues. I’ll give you the full update later this week, but in short, I managed to have the whole yard looking like a weirdly frozen arctic military outpost Saturday night. Not the scene I was after at all!

Regards,
Tom

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