Hostage Negotiations

The shutdown of government services in the United States is now well into its second week due to a continuing impasse between Republicans and Democrats over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). If the two parties cannot come together within the next seven days to raise the debt ceiling, America will face a catastrophic default on its national debt. So far, there has been little movement toward a resolution. Both sides have dug in their heels, and the public is getting worried.

Obama-GalesburgLast Friday President Obama clearly stated that he would not negotiate with Republicans to end the budget standoff “with a gun held to the head of the American people.”  He made a similar statement on Wednesday in a meeting with House Democrats saying he was willing to negotiate with Republicans but “not with a gun at my head.”

20100629_johnboehner_250x375Republican House Speaker John Boehner has pounced on these statements repeatedly stating to the media simply that Obama “will not negotiate.”

On Wednesday the President tried to clarify his position by opening an hour-long press conference with the following extended statement:

This morning I had a chance to speak with Speaker Boehner. And I told him what I’ve been saying publicly, that I am happy to talk with him and other Republicans about anything – not just issues I think are important but also issues that they think are important. But I also told him that having such a conversation, talks, negotiations shouldn’t require hanging the threats of a government shutdown or economic chaos over the heads of the American people.

Hours later, Boehner held his own news conference where he stated,

What the president said today was, if there is unconditional surrender by Republicans, he’ll sit down and talk to us.

In a nutshell, the situation boils down to this:

Obama: “Drop the gun, and we’ll talk.”

Boehner: “I’m not lowering my weapon.”

swat3_sI have been thinking quite a bit in recent days about this “hostage” metaphor. If we were describing a similar hostage incident on our city streets, the police would have been summoned long ago, professional negotiators would be talking down the perpetrator, and the SWAT team would be in place to take lethal action if needed. Unfortunately, in American politics, there is no outside authority to intervene. There is no such police force, and there is no SWAT team.

De-escalating the Crisis

But there is the art of negotiation. Conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin observes the basic rule used by every SWAT team in hostage situations: “You might not give the hostage taker what he wants, but you start talking and may give him something to prevent him from doing great damage.”

Many people have called on President Obama to “throw Boehner a bone” of some kind to keep negotiations from breaking off completely. Perhaps this is that Obama was doing in his news conference when he announced,

I am happy to talk with [Boehner] and other Republicans about anything – not just issues I think are important but also issues that they think are important.

And it appears that the Republicans have taken hold of this offer. Many commentators have noted how

The GOP argument has shifted over the last week or so from seeking to roll back the president’s healthcare reform law in the fiscal showdown to seeking broader changes to the tax code and entitlement programs.

Many long-time Republican members of the House have been looking for a suitable exit strategy. John Boehner had originally tried to steer the Republican members of the House away from a confrontation over Obamacare, preferring to use the debt ceiling fight to push for further spending cuts. But he was overruled by the Tea Party caucus who insisted on following the strategy laid out by their de facto leader, Senator Ted Cruz.

Ted CruzCruz has since been strongly castigated by other Republican members for overreaching his position and making grand promises that he could not keep. Rep. Peter King [R-NY] stated that he can “never forgive Ted Cruz,” and other Republicans have even circulated negative talking points against Cruz to prominent media personalities.

Others have expressed their disappointment with John Boehner who caved to the Tea party demands, demonstrating that even he finds himself being held hostage to Tea Party tactics.

cartoon Obama calls Boehner

Many Republican House members have expressed their frustration with having been pressured to join the Tea Party’s all-or-nothing assault on Obamacare. Charlie Dent [R-Pa] for one has gone on record as saying that strategy championed by Ted Cruz and a host of Tea Party congressmen has “failed miserably.”

But Tea Party members – and their outside funders and agitators – are not willing to back down. Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News and World Report states that

Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham told reporters Tuesday morning that grassroots conservatives will accept neither a pivot away from the issue in an effort to resolve the deadlock nor a short-term reopening of the government that doesn’t defund the law.

Finding an Exit Strategy

Is there any way out of this morass? Can House Republicans rally around a strategy that will enable them to emerge from this standoff with a win of some sort? Enter Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chairman, who suddenly stepped forward this week to chart a new course for the House Republicans. Ryan had been keeping a low profile throughout the entire Obamacare standoff and subsequent government shutdown, letting others take center stage instead.

Paul-ryan2Then the day after President Obama announced that he would be willing to agree to a short-term extension of the debt ceiling if it were a “clean” extension (that is, without other conditions), Ryan stepped forward with a detailed plan reported in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal saying “We’re ready to negotiate.”

Interestingly, his proposals do not mention Obamacare at all, focusing instead on “common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlements and tax code.” Today, Ryan headed to the White House for a meeting with the President along with 17 other Republican House members.

Many non-Tea Party Republican House members greeted Ryan’s entry into the fray with relief. “There’s nobody in the caucus that commands the respect that Paul does,” said one House Republican. Rep. Bill Nuizenga [R-MI] is quoted as saying, “The moderates trust him, they might not always like what he has to say but they trust him.”

The Tea Party and their  backers, on the other hand, are outraged. Tom Kludt at Talking Points Memo points out that

Right-wing groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, and RedState.com immediately lashed out at Ryan for failing to include the death of Obamacare in his demands in exchange for not intentionally crashing the global economy.

They were joined by Amanda Carpenter, spokeswoman for Senator Ted Cruz, Ben Shapiro, editor-at-large at the right-wing Breitbart.com, and a long list of others.

But the popular base the Tea Party once enjoyed is now waning. As Fox News contributor Leslie Marshall noted in a strongly worded essay on Wednesday,

The Tea Party’s influence and following among the American population has plunged to the lowest point since it’s inception. Less than one in four Americans now back the Tea Party, according to a recent Gallup poll. And in that same poll, those who hate the Tea Party and oppose its tactics have greatly risen in number.

She continues,

If you break down the numbers, it’s perplexing why any Republican would forge ahead with the tea party’s shutdown. First: poll after poll shows the American people do not want this shutdown. Further, they do not want this shutdown over Obamacare. The polls also show Americans dislike a government shutdown more than they dislike Obamacare. Polls show the American people blame Republicans; even other Republicans!

The solution, in her view, is for the Republican Party to completely disassociate itself from the Tea Party and vice versa. “If you call yourself a party,” she says, then “become a party.”

It is time for the Republicans to reexamine what their party stands for.  They are fast losing credibility with the public over this self-imposed budgetary crisis and the extreme unproductive positions taken so far. If they do not change course they, like the Tea Party they are currently beholding to, will speak only for a radical ostracized minority. Conservatism has a place in American politics. Radicalism does not.

In the late 1960s the Democrats followed an idealistic presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who advocated progressive policy positions that the American public could not broadly endorse. The Party appeared to have capitulated to a radicalized core, and people abandoned it in droves. It took a lot of soul-searching, but eventually the Democrats reinvented themselves, under a more moderate banner of Clinton economics.

Republicans need to learn from that example. It may be a painful process – severing limbs (or removing cancerous growths) always is. But if the Party is to survive, it must be done.

There is more than one hostage in this drama.

 

Credits: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images; AP;  Senate TV/AP; Wasserman/Tribune Content Agency; Gage Skidmore/Flickr

 

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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