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Me and Joe Lieberman: Fantasy Negotiations and Little Irrationalities

Joe Lieberman, the independent Senator from Connecticut, pissed me off today. First, he is screwing up the pending health care reform legislation, and second, he is forcing me to consider my commitment to negotiation and mediation. Others seem to enjoy fantasy football or picking the perfect baseball team. My amusement, as twisted as some might find it, is picturing myself in ‘the room’ negotiating the big stuff, like health care policy ‘reform’ pending in the U.S. Congress.

Notwithstanding all of my experience, study and professional training in the craft of negotiation, I continue to twist and turn in a manic-depressive curve of emotional and intellectual reactions as the status of the health care negotiations are reported. My personal biases and little irrationalities are forced forward and mess with all that professional stuff I claim to profess. While I am sure that none of my professional conflict management colleagues, being the objective, dispassionate, and impartial neutrals they are, are similarly afflicted, not so they would admit anyway, I do hereby offer up my erratic nature as a case study in the tension between my personal and professional selves. For obvious reasons, therefore, no effort will be made to cover over my personal biases.

Being in my early 60’s, self employed, with a problematic right knee (athletic injury, don’t ya know), and feeling the recession, I find myself, as it is euphemistically described, as one of the ‘underinsured.’ That means I can’t easily afford to pay my health insurance deductible to go to a Doctor on whim and I dread the risk of bankruptcy should I face “the big one” a debilitating stroke or heart attack. Like many, I’m counting the days to age 65 when I qualify for Medicare. In some ways, I feel betrayed; being of the ‘baby-boomer” generation—that bulge in the belly of the population snake of this country—I fully expected that “we” would, as our self centered nature has conditioned us—take care of ourselves first. I feel the need for health care reform personally, not to mention the 45 million people who are even worse off than I am.

The specific development that draws my ire presently is Senator Joe Lieberman’s rejection yesterday of the Medicare ‘buy-in’ proposal for a vulnerable group of people aged 55 to 64 (possibly me), offered as an alternative to the ‘public option.’ When presented, it seemed to be an all too simple resolution to the thorny impasse between conservative and progressive Democrats who wanted some form of alternative to private insurance and could obtain the elusive 60 Senate votes necessary to be filibuster proof. Both sides indicated cautiously positive responses. My reasonably trusted sources, Congressmen Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and Howard Dean, endorsed the plan, and Conservatives such as, Lieberman, Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana), and others, appeared to be at least ‘open’ to the idea.

In many disputes, both as a negotiator or as a mediator, I had been in this hopeful place, where a workable agreement appeared to be in sight to constructively end a difficult situation and I wanted to believe it could happen.

I think my professional training gets in the way more often than not; the intellectual neutral and impartial stuff lulls me into believing I don’t have to deal with my own little irrationalities that sneak into the room with me—even or especially in my fantasy negotiation. Intellectually, I knew enough not to let my expectations spike too high, but it has always been hard to resist, even when I was the “independent’ third party and it wasn’t a dispute in which I was personally involved. There is always, it seems, an emotional investment in bringing about an outcome.

Sure enough, a few days later, without apparent rhyme or reason, Lieberman announces he is flat out against the ‘Medicare ‘buy-in’ proposal. My hopes were dashed and I was pissed. Were I a negotiator or mediator in the room, I try to imagine how I would manage my response in the situation. Here is what I have to contend with before I utter a word to him.

1. Biases. I am ideologically committed to a single payer plan. I cannot understand how any country, let alone the United States, would not accept basic health care as a right and not merely an earned privilege. That people die for lack of health care or have to endure financial ruin to survive in the 21st Century is a moral perversion. In my fantasy mediation, were I to have the occasion to mediate between progressive and conservative Democrats, or between Democrats and Republicans, I ponder how I would set aside those feelings, disclose them, or should ethically remove myself. In any event, the monitoring of those feelings would be an ongoing struggle that is not lessened by naive professions of impartiality.

2. The fundamental attribution error. Were Lieberman in the room today there would be a strong tendency to judge his motivation and cast him in the role of the duplicitous evil doer. Even as a professional mediator I have found myself taking a strong dislike to a party that appeared to be ‘greedy’ or had a harsh and abrupt style. Earlier a proponent of Medicare ‘buy-in’ proposals and a staunch opponent of the filibuster, Lieberman now seems to have opportunistically changed his position 180 degrees—a clearly apparent betrayal of principle. I am more than ready to believe the media assertions that he is ‘in the pocket’ of the insurance company lobby; they have contributed significant sums of cash to him over his career. Worse still, is the prospect that his unchecked ego has placed his personal agenda of seeking revenge against a Democratic Party that abandoned him and forced him to become an independent in the last election ahead of the national interest. It is all too easy to slip into making judgments and attributing motivations.

3 “Come back with your shield or on it” — the risk of overconfidence. If the issue of access to health care is one of moral principle, between right and wrong, what is the point at which negotiation should be abandoned? Arianna Huffington and Howard Dean suggest that point has been reached the present Health Care legislation should be defeated. There is a decided confidence that right, justice and logic will ultimately be upheld and those who ‘whine’ about the potential risk of loss of some agreement simply lack resolve.

4. “The Dirty Business of Negotiation: the risk of appeasement and sellout. There is a constant risk of reaching for an agreement at any cost. I want my private history to be that I would not compromise my principles; I want to be on the side of the heroes and the stout of heart, to stand for something. Even in this dispute, the ghost of Neville Chamberlain, the ultimate appeaser, who presumed to negotiate a deal with Hitler for “peace in our time,” in order to avoid World War II, lurks in the shadows of this negotiation as it does in every negotiation. On the other hand, 30 million people presently shut out of health care have a chance to get in and there are some restrictions imposed on health insurance companies with regard to lifetime caps and setting pre-existing conditions. Should this be about Lieberman’s apparent arrogance or obtaining an adequate end product, even if it is only barely adequate? When do I become an apologist for the status quo and unwilling to take the necessary risk that ‘real change’ demands?

While framed rationally, none of these little irrationalities are managed by logic and reason. Managing them requires accepting my own ‘irrational’ reactions and how they play out. The most irrational response is to presume, either as a negotiator or mediator, that they can be easily denied or simply contained by an ethical canon to remain neutral and impartial. My ‘messy’ brain is simply not able to easily separate reason from emotion and my irrational inclinations are more than mere aberrant occurrences, they happen regularly, almost predictably.

For round 129 of my fantasy mediation of health care policy, I have dithered and equivocated myself into believing that a piece of legislation that delivers some measure of change is good enough, even if it appears to be the enemy of what I deem in principle, to be necessary and adequate. In the end, I would swallow hard, look directly at old Joe Lieberman and say to him with a straight face, “if you’ll sign on to being the 60th vote, let’s get it done.” I hope I haven’t sold out.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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