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Obama Needs A Better Hostage Rescue Strategy

Last November, Ezra Klein pointed out that it would be utterly absurd for Democrats to knuckle in to deficit-increasing policies demanded by Republicans and then allow the Republicans to use the resulting increase in the debt to score political points and/or gain policy leverage:

Congress will have to vote to lift the debt ceiling. Republicans are already looking toward this moment eagerly. Sen. Jim DeMint, for instance, wants to use it as leverage for "returning to 2008 spending levels" and "repealing Obamacare." Of course, part of the reason the debt ceiling will have to rise is that extending the Bush tax cuts will cost about $4 trillion -- all of it on the deficit. If Republicans want the tax cuts, Democrats should force them to accept the consequences of their vote and stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the debt ceiling. For Democrats to vote to extend Bush's tax cuts and then let Republicans hammer them on raising the debt ceiling borders on self-parody.

I replied that almost surely Democrats would go the self-parody route. Sure enough, Republicans are gearing up to threaten a debt default, with massive economic damage, to force Democrats to cough up more policy concessions:

Congressional Republicans are vowing that before they will agree to raise the current $14.25 trillion federal debt ceiling — a step that will become necessary in as little as five weeks —President Obama and Senate Democrats will have to agree to far deeper spending cuts for next year and beyond than those contained in the six-month budget deal agreed to late Friday night that cut $38 billion and averted a government shutdown.
Republicans have also signaled that they will again demand fundamental changes in policy on health care, the environment, abortion rights and more, as the price of their support for raising the debt ceiling. ...
“We want to see real structural, cultural-type changes tied to this debt ceiling. We’re not interested in a one-off kind of savings, or anything small,” said Representative Mick Mulvaney, a first-term Republican from South Carolina. “There has got to be game-changing kinds of changes to get us to vote for it.”
He dismissed warnings about default as “just posturing,” and said Democrats should bear the responsibility for passing any measure to increase the borrowing limit.
“It’s their debt,” he said. “Make them do it. That’s my attitude.”

It's not surprising that Republican-supported debt-increasing policies have almost immediately transmogrified into the Democrats' debt. Almost as soon as President Obama took office, the unsustainable fiscal policies inherited from the Bush administration became his. What's remarkable is how quickly everybody in Washington has come to accept the premise that Republicans should be able to use a debt limit vote to extract significant policy changes.

This sort of thing is completely unprecedented. Congress has been voting to raise the debt ceiling for years. The minority party typically uses the vote to embarrass the majority. They have never previously considered using such a vote to win substantive concessions.

So why is this happening now? I think it's pretty clear that the Obama administration's approach to hostage-taking is to blame. Last December, Republicans expressed their willingness to let something they at least claimed not to want happen -- expiration of the Bush tax cuts on income under $250,000 -- unless they received additional concessions. Obama shrugged and said, "the hostage was the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed."

When it came to approving the budget resolution, the same situation occurred. John Boehner's official position was that a government shutdown would be bad. But he'd do it if he didn't get some concessions. Obama paid up once more.

Why wouldn't Republicans try it again? And again, and again, and again? It's normal in politics to hold your opponent's priorities hostage -- I'll oppose your nominee unless you give me this bill. But when you can hold mutually-held priorities hostage, then you have almost unlimited power.

Obama does have leverage here: he can expose, and force Republicans to defend, their position. Do they want to increase middle-class taxes, shut down the government, and precipitate a financial crisis? The public does not seem to think so. If the Republicans actually did these things, it would change the public's view of the GOP for the worse. Indeed, the difference between this and a typical hostage scenario is that, in the latter, the hostage taker is pretty willing to be seen as ruthless and cold-blooded. Dennis Hopper's villain in "Speed" didn't really care if he gained a reputation as the kind of guy who would kill innocent people for money. The GOP leadership, by contrast, is very eager to avoid being seen as willing to raise middle-class taxes, shut down the government or foul up the economic recovery.

Now, it's entirely possible that Republicans are crazy enough to shoot the hostages. That would cause a lot of short-term pain. But if the alternative is to let them slowly bleed Obama to death on policy, to threaten unpopular actions at no cost to themselves, and to force Obama to assume complete responsibility for their willingness to undertake actions even they agree would be harmful, what choice does he have?

The consequences of a failure to raise the debt limit would be severe and widely-felt. They would be felt especially hard by powerful business interests with significant influence within the Republican Party. This would appear to be the perfect occasion for him to announce that he is finished paying ransom. The appropriate kinds of political deals to strike are those where Obama gives Republicans something they want in return for them giving him something he wants. The days of him giving something they want in return for them giving him something they both want have to be over. To play by these rules is to make himself a uniquely powerless president.