Arguably, that’s what happened to gun control. By spending time on an assault weapons ban, gun controllers hurt themselves in multiple ways. They energized the NRA’s base, who could probably have been persuaded to live with background checks. They wasted time, which had a huge cost: gun owners care about gun rights all the time, but the rest of the population mostly cares about gun control in the wake of a high-profile tragedy. And they made themselves look less like serious negotiators who were willing to come to a compromise that the other side could accept, and more like they were trying to reinstate the kind of gun laws that NRA members had spent two decades beating back.

In other words, by demanding more, they got less.

Asking for the moon in the hopes that you will get the stars is a good strategy only when you’re actually okay with getting nothing at all. To throw in a bit more negotiating jargon, it matters a lot whether you think your BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement) is better than whatever minimum concession the other side is demanding.

That’s why Republicans got a pretty good deal out of the debt ceiling negotiations. And it’s why they basically caved on the Bush tax cuts, ultimately agreeing to significant tax hikes on high-income Americans. In the first case they believed–however insanely–that crashing into the debt ceiling was better than allowing spending to continue unchecked. In the second case, their BATNA was an even larger tax hike than the one that Democrats were offering. So they extracted a small concession from Obama (the tax hikes started at $400,000 rather than $250,000) and then obediently agreed to violate their “no new taxes” pledge.