Today's Political Comment

A lot of folks today seem way too interested in viewing the Fiscal Cliff deal as a case of one side kicking the ass of the other. Way too much of politics, especially lately, is not about achieving what is best for America but about making your political enemies moan and cry.

Back when the last (and we hope the last) President Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, much of the right wing in this country went crazy to the point where he had to withdraw the nomination. It was not as if he'd nominated a Liberal. No, it was that he hadn't nominated someone who made Ted Kennedy weep. They wanted a nominee who was so ultra-right gonzo that it would say to the country, "Suck it, Liberals! You're gonna do it our way now!" Bush wouldn't or maybe couldn't give them that but he gave them Samuel Alito, who I guess was the next best thing.

Before the New Year's Eve deal and even a bit after when there was still the chance the House G.O.P. would kill it, I cruised a number of Liberal and Conservative message forums. On both, I saw a lot of messages that said, "We hold all the cards." That was the phrase: We hold all the cards. So clearly, this was the time to stick it to other side and get everything on our wish list, including the permanent castration of the other side. Except, of course, that neither side held all the cards…and neither Obama nor the Republican leaders were aiming for that kind of crush-your-foes outcome.

Ezra Klein has what seems to me like a pragmatic, balanced view of the deal. He thinks Obama got the best of it by a slight margin but any Republican should have expected that, given the outcome of the last election.

Years ago, I was heavily involved for a time in Hollywood labor relations, working with the Writers Guild on some of its efforts in collective bargaining. During that period, I worked closely with a man named Julius "Mel" Reich — as in Larry "Bud" Melman — a gentle, soft-spoken labor lawyer who I came to admire greatly. Mel was a confirmed Liberal and an ardent pro-labor advocate.

In the course of his work, he often came into contact with angry writers who wanted him not just to better their working conditions but to make the ears of Management bleed. They'd insist that this strike or that lawsuit was the time to kick the producers in the balls, remind them how important we are, take them down a few pegs, etc. "We hold all the cards" was said often, especially when we were actually sitting there with a pair of threes.

One night, Mel and I were working late at his office downtown and he was playing back voice mail messages that had come in for him earlier. One was from a writer I knew who was involved in a negotiation Mel was then handling with Universal Studios. The writer was demanding we (the WGA, which was Mel's client) "kill them." It was around a two minute message of this writer yelling (yelling!) that we had Universal by the testicles and we had to have the balls to squeeze them until they begged for mercy. Mel shook his head and turned to me…

He said, "Any time people start talking about manhood and testicles and the other side begging for mercy, you're in trouble. You're setting yourself up for a bad deal. You have to explain to them that this isn't about that. It's about negotiating a proper split of the pie." Then he added, "I have had people want to walk away from a terrific settlement deal because it didn't beat the other side into submission." I've remembered that ever since. Every time I look at possible deal anywhere — whether it's for the nation or a script I'm going to write — I try to separate how much of the argument is about the actual deal and how much is just someone trying to compensate for self-loathing and/or low testosterone.

I'm not sure if we have a lot of that in Washington, at least in the actual deals that are made. But we sure have too much in the bleachers where they're trying to cheer their teams on to victory.