You have to establish a position of strength. Before Bill Clinton and I negotiated a balanced-budget agreement in 1996, we closed the government twice. By the time we were done with the second shutdown, there was a grudging sense of respect. At the same time, we realized that if you don’t get Clinton’s signature, you’re not getting anything done. We negotiated face to face for 35 days. We learned how to do a dance that involved hitting each other pretty hard but then backing off and finding a way to work together.
How do you do that? By paying attention. My motto is listen, learn, help, and lead. First thing you want to do is listen. What are they trying to accomplish? Figure out if there’s some common ground. But you have to know what you absolutely can’t give up. It’s a process of exploration, of trying to figure out if we can get to this place. You go through a cycle of dialogues, trying to get in position to be able to do the right thing. If you’re patient and you have what Clinton and I described as “cheerful persistence,” it’s amazing how much you can get done.
My sense is that Obama is a very bad negotiator. Obama doesn’t listen. Clinton listened. Clinton understood the art of getting to a deal because he’d been Arkansas governor. He’d dealt with legislatures. He was used to talking it out, paying attention. Obama is a college professor. He gives a lecture and then he grades you on your ability to understand his lecture. There’s no practical way that a Republican-Obama negotiation is going to work, because they want radically different things. —As told to Joshua Green
• Gingrich is former House Speaker.