...the point is that there are common-sense solutions to our problems right now. I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions. I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can rally the American people around those common-sense solutions. But ultimately, they, themselves, are going to have to say, we want to do the right thing.That reference to a "permission structure" set off a flurry of commentary. Perhaps the seminal article that captured what President Obama is doing was written by Brian Beutler. If you haven't read it already, please be sure to do so. John Sides agrees with Beutler and also provides lots of links to what folks are saying about all of this.
And I think there are members certainly in the Senate right now, and I suspect members in the House as well, who understand that deep down. But they're worried about their politics. It’s tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries. And I understand all that. And we're going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country. But it’s going to take some time.
But when I heard the President talk about creating a permission structure, what came to my mind is the idea of letting your opponents save face in defeat. It is an ancient strategy from Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
If you surround the enemy, leave an outlet; do not press an enemy that is cornered.A google search sent me to this interesting article about the fact that President Obama quoted Sun Tzu to a group of Jewish leaders in talking to them about his approach to Iran. The author explains:
We need to let people save face, especially when their only alternative left when surrounded (and sanctioned) is to battle to the bitter end. The key here is Obama is taking the more difficult yet desirable route of winning without fighting. Anybody can fight -- only the wise truly win.What is interesting to me is that if President Obama is attempting to create a permission structure (or to allow the Republicans to "save face"), then its also true that the opposition is surrounded. As I've been suggesting for a while now, the forces that are aligned against him look very much like a beast in its death throes.
We might take just a moment to recognize how we got there. As Susan Milligan said in her article that I quoted yesterday:
Latinos, other minorities and women are becoming more powerful, both in numbers and in political representation. Gay marriage is becoming more acceptable. That may be world-shaking for social conservatives. But making Obama fail won't halt the trend.In other words, the coalition of the ascendant has cornered the dying beast.
But another factor that has gotten us to this place is something I've been talking about for awhile now, President Obama's conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy. Mark Schmitt explains:
The reason the conservative power structure has been so dangerous, and is especially dangerous in opposition, is that it can operate almost entirely on bad faith...One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict.In addition to demonstrating that they have nothing, by offering to meet Republicans half-way (or more sometimes) President Obama has given them two alternatives: either work with him or back themselves into an ever more extremist corner. Of course their strategy of obstruction has meant the latter.
And so we have a cornered opposition that has descended into chaos. Sun Tzu would suggest that "winning" means giving them an outlet to save face in defeat.