THE BLOG
10/02/2013 12:02 pm ET | Updated Dec 02, 2013

Are the Republicans Crazy? No!

One of the greatest dangers in negotiation is to assume that how you see the world is also how others see it.

Jon Stewart masterfully depicts the Republican Party as having "left the plane of reason" in presuming that it gets to reject laws in force. But that depiction makes sense only in a context where rational is defined as following the rules.

It would be wise to stop thinking that Republicans have lost their minds. Such assumptions weaken negotiators. More than meets the eye is going on here.

There are two general types of negotiation. The "win-win" approach (aka "integrative negotiation") is marked by collaboration and creative problem solving. Most of the popular books on negotiation emphasize a win-win approach.

What we haven't heard so much about is "distributive negotiation." That's where someone must win, and someone must lose. It's exactly the approach House Republicans have chosen.

In distributive negotiations you watch your back and you never assume that irrationality lies behind seemingly reckless actions. At the extreme of distributive negotiation, the most intransigent side loses sight of its original goals and tramples on the wellbeing of others in the service of being able to say: "We won." Sound familiar?

When winning or disruption is all that matters, then all other values must take a back seat. The rational course then is more a matter of achieving your priorities than adherence to ethics, truthfulness, accepted rules or common practice.

Think about the concept of fairness. People are supposed to respect fairness, right? ("Supposed to" being the key term here.) But an argument based on fairness only has persuasive power if the people accused of being "unfair" care enough about that label to have it influence their actions. If there is a higher concern, such as being perceived as a team player even among bad guys, fairness takes a back seat. Any negotiator who keeps trying to apply the fairness argument with such opponents is doomed to failure.

This brings us to the Republicans' decision to shut down the government rather than be perceived as having lost. They have bound themselves to the win-lose distributive approach to the point where negotiation is impossible. Versatility, creativity and flexibility equal weakness. The ground rules have changed. Winning is everything.

Machiavelli must have had "princes" like those on the far right in mind when he wrote: "Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how to not be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires."

The Republicans have chosen not to be good, not to be fair, not to be rational in the common sense of these words. The needs of the "folks" pale by comparison to the distributive demands of the moment. Since they can't win -- and since where they have positioned themselves anything less than a win is a shameful loss -- they have chosen to bring the game to a halt. Their goal is to "win" by disallowing a win by the opposition and then to worry about explanations later.

Of course if Republicans take this priority too far, some of them will be punished come election time. But they're not thinking that far ahead right now, and are likely banking on an ability to frame their actions in some favorable light.

The ball in not only in their court right now, they think they own it. Laugh as we might at the ludicrous nature of their behavior, they aren't playing to the same audience as Democrats. They're in an entirely different theater. The show is underway. The die is cast. Now all they care about is how they look on TV.

Kathleen writes on politics and negotiation here too. Her latest book on behind-the-scenes politics is the debut mystery-thriller - Shadow Campus.