The Politics of Hostage-Taking

May 17th, 2011

Republicans are seriously threatening to let the debt ceiling expire, something which would have dire consequences for the U.S. and world economies. In response, Obama should give them nothing. Nada. Not a penny. Not even a kind word.

Frankly, the whole GOP romance with Hostage politics is getting more than just a little too unnerving. They were obnoxious over taxes, threatening to deny everyone a tax cut unless the rich got one too–and Obama caved. The GOP won the battle, and discovered that they could take hostages and Obama would fold. So then they threatened a government shutdown, and, predictably, Obama played footsie with them; even though he wound up giving them very little in the end, the impression was that he played ball, and that the GOP either got something, or came close.

Almost immediately after that, the GOP, emboldened from the apparent success of their hostage-taking so far, announced they had two more hostages: Medicare and the Debt Ceiling.

This is why you don’t deal with hostage-takers: if you give them a cookie, they’ll want a glass of milk. It’s too easy to take hostages, and there’s no end to their supply. Obama dealt with the GOP when it demanded ransom, and lo, just days later, they produced brand-new hostages.

Medicare, so far, has come back to bite them in the ass. They continue to vacillate between saying that they’re not going to do it, and threatening to go all the way. You get the feeling that (1) they want to do it, (2) they know that it would be politically damaging, but (3) they believe they can use it as a huge bargaining chip to get other things they want. The Democrats actually are on pretty strong ground here, and know that they can use the Medicare plan to hurt Republicans in next year’s election. As a hostage, it’s kind of a loser because it would be harder for Republicans to harm it.

The Debt Ceiling, however, is something else. It is more like the government shutdown, in that Republicans actually have the power to make it happen by withholding a vote. But the debt ceiling is like the government shutdown on steroids. Steroids from hell. Seriously, this could wreck the economy–but the Republicans are holding it back like it’s a dessert they want to withhold to punish a recalcitrant child.

Obama has got to stand firm on the debt ceiling thing. He has to call the Republican’s bluff. Dealing with the Republicans when they threatened to shut down the government was bad enough; it brought about the current crises, and if Obama continues to deal with them, the GOP will keep on doing this, and every few months we’ll have another situation where the GOP is threatening to destroy some aspect of America in order to get what they want.

Another reason Obama should not give an inch is that the debt ceiling, unlike the government shutdown, is not something the GOP can pin on Obama. The GOP can’t let the debt ceiling go unchanged and then tell Americans that the president wrecked the economy. And if they do let this go, it won’t be like the government shutdown, which is bad–it would be completely disastrous. Republicans would have to be a hundred times more stupid and crazy than they could possibly be to make this happen. The GOP would be literally committing suicide if they ran the economy into the ground over political game-playing.

Obama will be pressured, though; he may think or people may tell him that he has to do something. And that is true, in that he has to appear before the American people and tell them that the GOP is out of bounds on this one. That the debt ceiling is not a bargaining chip, it is not something you hold hostage, and that in all good conscience, there is no way on earth that he will budge on this one, and that if the Republicans have decided to wreck the economy, there’s nothing he can do about it.

That Obama seems to be unwilling to do is stupid. This is not a choice for him, unless he wants to face this situation every other week. If Obama really wants to keep playing the “I’m reasonable, I’m not partisan, so I’ll talk to them regardless of what they’re doing” game, then he’s an idiot. He has to draw the line in the sand.

Otherwise, a week or two after he makes some sort of deal with the GOP, yet another hostage–or three–will materialize, and we’ll be back at square one. Because when the GOP sees that destructive behavior wins them something, they make it a standard practice, like they did with obstructionism and blazingly hypocritical partisan attacks.

Obama has to make clear to the GOP that they cannot simply print free currency like this, like a child demanding a toy or else he’ll use his baseball bat to destroy something else in the house. It was bad enough when the brat threatened to bash in the TV set, but now he’s saying he’s going to take it to grandma’s head.

Time to take the baseball bat out of his hand and teach the little snot a lesson he’ll never forget.

  1. Tim Kane
    May 17th, 2011 at 15:55 | #1

    The person who cares the least controls the relationship.

    The Republicans care the least.

    Obama set this up last winter when he caved on Unemployment renewal in an exchange for two more years of Bush tax cuts. He could have called Republican’s brinkmanship when the stakes weren’t so high. Instead of a few mmillion people’s unemployment, its hundreds of millions of people’s livelihood at risk.

    The republicans would have given in last winter, in all likelyhood: three million people beign thrown on the street, some of whome own guns,… I don’t think so. It’s like that Republicans will blink but the brinkmanship at this level is not good for economic stability of the economy at large.

    Had the Bush tax cuts been ended, then we wouldn’t be bumping into this proble – at least at this point.

  2. Troy
    May 18th, 2011 at 07:09 | #2

    Missing in the above analysis is that the Bush tax cuts helped him, too.

    Last year’s showdown had two bargaining sides:

    1) taxing the top bracket another $100B and extending people past their 6 months state unemployment (up to 99 weeks)


    2) Having all taxes rise on everyone and letting unemployment run out.

    The Republicans saw that they could blame the Dems for raising taxes if there was no compromise — people would see their taxes go up and the Republicans would say we voted for no new taxes but the Dems wanted to tax rich people more so they refused.

    That’s twisted logic, but with enough repetition enough people would be bamboozled.

    Also in this crossfire were the millions of people running through their unemployment checks. Those would have ended in December, now they go for another full year.

    Unemployed people are marginal and thus the perfect hostage. Plus unemployment is pure stimulus and the Republicans really don’t want the economy recovering so killing it would have been a bonus in that dimension.

    The current impasse is rather different. As you say, the Republicans are more or less putting the gun to their own heads. There’s no way they can really spin themselves out of this one.

  3. Tim Kane
    May 18th, 2011 at 14:45 | #3


    Well I don’t believe that the Republicans would have pulled the trigger one ending unemployment insurance. There are millions of gun owners in the United States, and many of the millions thrown off unemployment are amongst the millions who own guns, and thrown out into the street, unable to provide for their families, overwhelmed with the shame of it all, nothing left to lose.

    The Republican party represents, first and foremost, the Rich people – especially banksters and CEOs. These are some of the people who would become targets of the deranged, unemployed and heavily armed. Then there’s all the bad press they’d get. The Republicans, in my mind, would have folded then. I believe they’ll fold now. But those Bush tax cuts are a huge milstone on our societies back.

  4. Troy
    May 19th, 2011 at 01:40 | #4

    But those Bush tax cuts are a huge milstone on our societies back.

    Not really. The top bracket cut is only $100B/yr. The deficit is $1.5T.

    The entire package of tax cuts (most of which went to the bottom 80%) were a very stupid thing to do in 2001-2003 since they did not prompt capital formation but instead consumption and speculation in the housing market.

    LBJ proposed a 10% tax RISE in 1968 to pay for the war. If Bush had half the balls of LBJ he’d have done the same thing, though the economy of 1968 was MUCH different than the economy of 2002-2003.

    The core problem is that we are moving into a post-employment economy.

    Too many people and not enough work. Japan has this same problem to some extent, but at least they have depopulation going for them now.

    I don’t really know how to solve this problem. I think it involves a minimum standard of food, housing, healthcare, local transportation, education available to all without regard to ability to pay.

    But to get to there from here is tough to see.

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