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.