A veteran hostage negotiator’s advice on handling the GOP

January 4, 2013

The use of hostage-taking imagery to describe the coming debt ceiling crisis is now so ubiquitous that I thought I’d ask a veteran police hostage negotiator what he thinks of the looming standoff.

His advice: Obama must have a trump card in his back pocket that will resolve the situation without the GOP’s help, if necessary. One of the most important goals is getting the hostage taker to realize that ultimately, he’s not in control of the situation.

There are two possible trump cards for Obama. One is the “platinum coin” option, in which the government mints a trillion-dollar coin and uses it to pay its debts, which is currently getting a lot of blogospheric love. (Josh Barro explains how this might work; Kevin Drum dissents.) There’s also the 14th Amendment option, which some legal observers believe empowers the President to ignore the debt ceiling.

Obama appears cool to both ideas. But  Scott Wagner, a former NYPD homicide detective with extensive experience negotiating hostage crises, says the President needs to at least hint at a willingness to pursue an alternative endgame. A hostage negotiator needs to persuade a hostage taker that he is totally isolated and that the negotiator is the only one who holds the key to his way out — that “deep down, he is not in control of the situation.”

“Sometimes the hostage taker has leverage,” Wagner tells me. “But often the negotiator can obtain the leverage back.” Wagner, a Democrat, adds that the hostage taker must come to feel that “he is all alone in the world, and he needs the negotiator to help him get out of his problem.”

From the point of view of a hostage negotiator, Obama’s basic problems are time, and the possibility of mass casualties. This is not a situation where the negotiator can drag the negotiations on forever and wear down the hostage taker. There’s a deadline. And casualties could be extensive — default could crater the economy — which increases the pressure for a backup plan that would resolve the situation with minimal collateral damage.

“He has to be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done with the least amount of casualties,’” says Wagner, who’s now an investigator for Management Resources of New York. “He has to let them know he’s in control of the situation, but it has to be very delicately played. The hostage taker has to feel that he’s an active participant in determining his own fate.”

In the end, perhaps the most important message that needs to be conveyed is that the hostage taker won’t be the one who dictates the outcome on his own terms. In the case of the debt ceiling, some voices — such as Newt Gingrich, Judd Gregg, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page — are warning GOP leaders that they risk taking the blame for pushing the economy to the brink and that they’ll have to cave in the end.

Says Wagner: “No one ever gets away with it.”

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | January 4, 2013