In a negotiation, you might well have more power if you are powerless. Strength can be weakness, and weakness can be strength. Since 2011, these principles have been playing a significant role in conflicts between President Barack Obama and the House of Representatives.
To see the general point, suppose that you are a malpractice lawyer, representing a patient in a suit against a doctor. Your client believes that the doctor made a big mistake. He is very angry. He knows a trial wouldn’t be a lot of fun, but he likes the idea of seeing his doctor squirm on the witness stand. He is also willing to settle, but the settlement has to be on precisely his terms, which would give him a lot of money.
Your client’s position means that once you begin to negotiate, your hands will be tied. You won’t be able to compromise. That puts you in an excellent position. Your client is willing to endure a trial, which the doctor might well see as a worst-case scenario and perhaps even as intolerable. Under reasonable assumptions, you should be able to obtain a generous settlement.
The situation is different, and much worse, if your client tells you that he wants to avoid a trial, and if he gives you the power to take any reasonable deal. If you are so instructed, you can’t hide behind your client and insist that the only acceptable agreement is on his preferred terms. In fact, you might want your client to tie your hands, because that strengthens your position.
Now turn to the current fiscal standoff. For many Republicans and many Democrats, including the president, defaulting on the national debt is a worst-case scenario. For the participants, a central question is this: What exactly does the other side have the power to do?