Making like a lemming can be tactically smart

October 1, 2013
Ferocious Lemming
(David Mintz/Creative Commons)

Republican Representative Devin Nune describes his more conservative colleagues in harsh terms.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) had choice words for fellow House Republicans who are willing to see the government shut down over their opposition to Obamacare: “Lemmings with suicide vests,” he called them. “They have to be more than just a lemming. Because jumping to your death is not enough,” he said.

However, behaving like an explosive lemming can be tactically smart. In his classic text on deterrence theory, “Arms and Influence,” Thomas Schelling describes a Joseph Conrad character who used to walk around the city with a bomb in his pocket so that the police wouldn’t arrest him.

All he had to do was to press that little ball and anyone in his immediate neighborhood would be blown to bits with him. … The little man’s explanation was calm. “In the last instance it is character alone that makes for one’s safety. … I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore I am deadly.

Schelling’s point is that a reputation for irrational absolutism can often be a valuable negotiating asset. If people genuinely believe that you are willing to set off your explosive vest and blow everything up, they’re likely to give you whatever you want. Certainly, the apparent willingness of House Republicans to bring the building down around them has won them benefits in negotiations over the last few years.

However, there are limits to this strategy too. If the impression is not absolute – for example because some members of your caucus seem wobbly on the prospects of Armageddon, the people you are negotiating with may be tempted to call your bluff. Furthermore, as Schelling stresses, your reputation will probably be badly damaged if you make threats and then fail to deliver on them.

If Schelling is right, one might plausibly expect the next few days of negotiations to be shaped by two contradictory forces. On the one hand, House and Senate Democrats and the White House are likely to hang tough, because they anticipate that the House Republicans will have no choice but to fold. On the other hand, the House Republicans may have a strong incentive to double down, because they fear that if they concede this time around, their future leverage (including their leverage over the debt ceiling negotiations) will dwindle rapidly. This may give further reason to Republican moderates not to dissent from the party line (they may not like that line: but they do not want to damage their party’s negotiating strength).

Connoisseurs of irony may enjoy the fact that many Republicans find themselves in much the same bind as the Obama administration found itself in after Syria flouted its ‘red line’ on chemical weapons. In retrospect, they would prefer not to find themselves making the threats that they’re making, but they fear that if they don’t somehow deliver on those threats, people won’t take them seriously in future.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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