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GOP strategy in budget crisis is an old trick, but this time the stakes are higher

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Barack Obama speaking about the continuing government shutdown from the White House Briefing Room on Tuesday.

During his press conference Tuesday, President Obama used the word “ransom” seven times to refer to the way (in his view) House Republicans have kidnapped the federal government (via the shutdown) and are now holding a gun on the U.S. credit rating (by refusing to increase the debt limit).

He used the word “threat” 11 times, plus “extortion” once. Twice he likened the Republicans to arsonists who are threatening to burn something precious down if you don’t let them have what they want. As in: “If you’re in negotiations around buying somebody’s house, you don’t get to say, ‘Well, let’s talk about the price I’m going to pay, and if you don’t give the price then I’m going to burn down your house.’ That’s not how negotiations work.”

Maybe you think the overall extortionist/arsonist/ransom metaphor works to describe the Republican position. To me, it seems more defensible than Speaker Joh

n Boehner (whom I mocked mercilessly over this on Monday) saying 22 times in one Sunday interview program that all he wants from Obama is a “conversation,” when in fact what he wants and continues to demand are huge concessions. Those concessions are precisely the “ransom” that Obama said seven times the Republicans are seeking to exact.

Anyway, it’s just a metaphor. If Obama can convince the country to view the Republicans as metaphorical extortionists, it will help him win the fight for public opinion. But it’s also a fairly insulting metaphor to Republicans and their sympathizers (extortion is, you know, criminal activity) and I suppose it could backfire.

But (to dwell on the metaphor just a bit longer) Obama has also created a climate in which the idea of making any kind of substantive concession to end the stalemate would look like a huge cave-in because it would be the equivalent of negotiating with terrorists or at least with arsonist/blackmailers.

In his New York Times column today, Tom Friedman endorses the whole no negotiations, no concessions theme, writing: “A minority of a minority, which has lost every democratic means to secure its agenda, has no right to now threaten to tank our economy if its demands are not met. If we do not preserve this system, nothing will ever be settled again in American politics.”

Is it possible that is bit apocalyptic?

There are precedents

I asked University of Minnesota Congress expert Kathryn Pearson whether Obama’s claim that any concession in exchange for reopening the government or raising the debt would constitute some kind of unprecedented endorsement of blackmail and extortion schemes. Her answer was a qualified no.

For a faction or a party to attach some kind of policy change to a piece of “must-pass” legislation — even including a debt limit increase — is a very old trick in the Washington book, she said. Off the top of her head, she mentioned that anti-abortion elements enacted several restrictions on abortion during the Clinton years that President Bill Clinton would certainly have vetoed if they had come to him as separate bills.

But the concessions extracted were much smaller in scope than the repeal-defund-postpone-gut-Obamacare demands by House Republicans that set off the current crisis. It would indeed be unprecedented, she said, for any president to give away a major piece of legislation or a top presidential priority — such as the Affordable Care Act — under such circumstances.

“The tactic is not unprecedented,” she said. “The scope of what the Republicans are trying to accomplish with it is unprecedented.”

Obama has now raised the stakes even higher by suggesting (really more than suggesting) that he will not give the Republicans anything at all under these gun-to-the-head circumstances.

Said Pearson: “I have assumed all along that what would happen is that Republicans would get some minor policy concession just to save face, but it wouldn’t be much. Now [Obama] seems to be ruling out even that.”

A step back from the ledge

In fact, Obama did offer something Tuesday. He offered to engage in wide open talks (“conversation?”) over anything the Republicans want to suggest, in exchange for even a very short-term recess in the government shutdown and a brief postponement of the debt-limit breach.

But in general, the reaction to from Repub-land was dismissive. But I’d be surprised if they don’t find some way to say yes to it. (And there are reports this morning that the president is inviting GOP lawmakers to the White House amid hints that there could be a short truce.)

At least it holds the possibility of ending the double crisis. During the talks, Obama could be free to negotiate while able to claim he was not doing so with a gun to his head. And if the Republicans could align their demands with their actual power (that’s a big if), they could achieve some kind of face-saving concessions.

Or, one could imagine a much bigger deal being worked out, along the lines of the elusive, legendary “Grand Bargain,” that would include many bit items from the wish lists of both parties and might actually put the federal budget onto a more sustainable path. Of course, that would require quite a bit of imagining, since it would require tax increases.

In the happy scenario, all this could be accomplished in a way that enables both sides to claim victory and even for Obama to claim that he had vindicated the no-negotiations-with-terrorists rule. The other possibility is that the talks would bog down and we would soon be facing the slightly postponed debt-limit government-shutdown crisis. But it’s hard to see any disadvantage to trying. In fact, if Republicans decline the offer, they will be the ones who shut down the government because they weren’t willing to have, in Boehnerian terms, a conversation.

A full transcript of the press conference is available here.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ross Willits on 10/09/2013 - 10:51 am.

    Lockouts and Shutdowns

    I can’t help but see the current government shutdown in the same light as the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.

    In the case of the Minnesota Orchestra, the management and board have decided to reset the business model, ditch the music director and replace more than a quarter of the musicians with lesser talent, against the wishes of the community and the orchestra itself. They presented this in a contract proposal as a “final offer,” then complained that the Musicians won’t negotiate, and locked the doors for good.

    Similarly, the GOP has presented a series of untenable positions as red lines, then blamed the Dems for not negotiating, then they shut down the government.

    Calling them terrorists may be going too far, but extortionists seems appropriate. Each seems to be saying “Let us tear down your garage or we’ll burn down your house.”

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/09/2013 - 10:57 am.

    There’s an easy way out of this

    The republicans have reduced their demands from totally defunding Obamacare to simply delaying the individual mandate for a year. You don’t hear about it much in the press because it sounds too reasonable to the average person, yet it’s still considered unacceptable by Obama. So of course, we hear of vague notions of “extortionist/arsonist/ransom” instead of what the latest republican offer actually is.

    But I also blame John Boehner for a dismal job of communicating his caucus’ position on all of this. His repeated “conversation” mantra was not only stupid but it was a waste of an opportunity to tell the whole story. He’ll be gone after the 2014 elections.

    The deal to delay the individual mandate for a year should be acceptable to democrats because it’s asking Obama to unilaterally modify the law’s implementation schedule just as he’s already done with the employers mandate, delaying the implementation of out-of-pocket limits, union carve-outs, and other changes. It’s just another strike of his pen.

    And the program won’t be affected at all financially since it’s only a one-year delay and money has already been allocated to pay for it in last year’s budget. They don’t need revenue from individuals this year to pay for it, regardless.

    But it’s important because after a year of experience, with people knowing what the real costs of their new insurance policy will be, including sky-high deductibles, which have been pretty much ignored in the discussion thus far, we’ll have a better idea of whether people think this is a good idea, or a bad idea made a terrible idea because it is mandated.

    Seems reasonable enough to me.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/09/2013 - 02:36 pm.


      Mr. Tester, you have frequently expressed your contempt for the intelligence of your (like it or not) fellow citizens. Even so, you surely cannot believe they are so ignorant as to fall for the “just a little delay” con. A delay in the individual mandate means the whole system fails (I know that’s what you want). It is not about “trying it out” to see if it works. It is a means for destroying the whole plan, piecemeal (the other parts of the plan–no lifetime limits, no disqualification for preexisting conditions–poll too well to be fought).

      Delaying for a year means the Republicans can try another repeal vote if they should retake control of the Senate. If the law has already been in effect, they might see their worst fear come true: the system will work, and the public will like it. That is a very real, and not unwarranted, fear. Once the public sees that all the tales full of sound and fury told by the Republicans signify nothing, the Republicans’ signature issue goes away. How many low information voters are they going to recruit when it’s seen that Obamacare isn’t sending FEMA in to kidnap their doctors, or death panels aren’t putting failed half-term governors out to die on ice floes? The biggest–probably only–loser from a successful Affordable Care Act are the Republicans.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/09/2013 - 03:31 pm.

        You’re missing my point, sir

        This isn’t about delaying implementation of the system, it’s simply about delaying the REQUIREMENT that people enroll for a year. Everyone’s still free to enroll if they so choose. And those who need insurance features of the kind you mention will be able to get them now.

        It’s instructive that people have a knee-jerk reaction when it’s suggested that people should have a choice of whether or not to enroll. Wow.

        Surely you’re not suggesting that if it turns out after a year of experience that the people don’t want the insurance they bought, that the government should FORCE THEM to keep it. That would be tyranny. An inflammatory word that would actually and technically be true. But if they like it, let them keep it! How could that be any more fair?

        • Submitted by John Clark on 10/09/2013 - 11:43 pm.

          Does Obamacare actually restrict our choices? Probably not.

          If the idea, Dennis, is to test the public’s acceptance of Obamacare, while at the same time, delaying the individual mandate, I don’t think this exercise will work. So why do I say this? Because it is highly unlikely that health insurers would drop their restrictive language regarding pre-existing conditions, and restrictive caps on coverage if the individual mandate provision was not part of the law. This requirement gives health insurers a much broader base of customers (and thus revenue), which highly incentivizes them to eliminate these coverage restrictions.

          And yes, when it comes to choice, the mandate does require that citizens do purchase health insurance coverage. But before Obamacare, restrictions that either denied many folks coverage, or forced them to pay excessive costs when coverage ran out, are certainly realities that limited one’s choices. And since most responsible citizens would normally purchase coverage if they could afford it, Obamacare does make health care coverage more accessible, and less costly for many families and individuals who can’t afford it now. This also means more choice for more people! Plus, speaking of fairness, freeloaders, who in the past, evaded health insurance, will, under Obamacare, be obligated to pay their fair share of the freight. That is certainly not all bad either.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/10/2013 - 08:48 am.

          Once again, my good man

          The individual mandate is essential to making the whole system work. One can argue the fairness or justice of the mandate, but taking it away is a guarantee that the system–including the popular parts of it–will fail.

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/09/2013 - 04:16 pm.

      Testing Obama’s resolve

      As I recall, Somali pirates once tested the resolve of the new President. Remember how that ended?

      Sending in the SEALs are not an option in this mess, which the House majority has created, but it is likely that the President, acting in his role as the grownup-in-chief, will offer the Speaker some kind of deal that saves him some scrap of dignity while offering a path out of this mess. Spoiler alert: delaying the Affordable Care Act is off the table.

      Unfortunately, a lot of people will forget this whole mess by Nov. 2014. That’s just the way we Americans are.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/09/2013 - 07:14 pm.

      Quotation for Dennis

      “It’s not what you don’t know that kills you, it’s what you know for sure that ain’t true.”
      — by Mark Twain.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/09/2013 - 11:14 am.

    As Lincoln said in a similar situation….

    It’s like a highwayman pointing a gun at your head and saying ‘give me all your money. If you don’t I’ll shoot you and then you’ll be a murderer’.
    But that was when Republicans were Republicans.

    Another problem with Boehner’s ‘negotiations’ is that the things that he’s wanted to converse about are mostly irrelevant to the legislation before the House. They’re issues that the G.O.P. has already failed to enact and wants to sneak through in the hostage negotiations.

    And the ultimate irony is the fact the the legislation would probably pass the House if Boehner allowed a vote on it. The ultimate filibustero by fiat.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/09/2013 - 11:52 am.

    Obviously the tactic isn’t new

    But Republicans have taken it to a whole new level. And they done this under very different circumstances than previous situations, i.e. we were not trying to recover from a recession anywhere near as deep as this one.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/09/2013 - 12:04 pm.

    Two recent articles

    show the extent of the GOP’s duplicity and just how effective it has been.

  6. Submitted by Perry Senjem on 10/09/2013 - 12:21 pm.

    Mr. Black,How does one

    Mr. Black,

    How does one effectively negotiate by handing over all leverage at once with the opposing party saying that the present leverage will be leverage once again if you give us our way this time? DC is full of can-kicking elite athletes. Should any party holding leverage expect to be respected at the table the next time if they give up their only leverage once? I’d suggest letting the theater play out until real deadlines are an eyelash away. Commenting in the interim seems like a waste.
    Most people should know that both parties will continue to govern by crisis and never make tough decisions as long as the Federal Reserve has their back and the bond vigilantes stay at bay. Until then, watch and root for your favorite actors.

  7. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/09/2013 - 02:22 pm.

    Big distinction

    Please, no more “both sides do it too,” or “it’s just a matter of degree.”

    There is a big difference between Congress passing a bill with objectionable provisions and using that as leverage, and the situation we are in now. The operative words are “Congress passing a bill.” Congress has passed no bill defunding the Affordable Care Act, and has passed no bill with the “reasonable” Trojan horse of a one-year delay in the individual mandate. This is a minority of one house doing what they cannot do by legitimate means.

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