The GOP asks why Obama will negotiate with Putin and not with them. Here’s why.

September 27, 2013

President Obama's news conference was meant to drive home his position that he won't negotiate with Republicans over the debt ceiling.

But Republicans want those negotiations. And they think they've found a winning message to get them: How can Obama be willing to negotiate with Vladimir Putin but not with John Boehner? They've even got a Web video:

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner, made a similar point on Twitter, contrasting Obama's announcement that he was negotiating with President Rouhani of Iran with his emphatic refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling:

Let's run the analogy out.

Imagine that Putin stepped forward tomorrow morning and announced that Russia had developed a computer virus that would shut down the market for U.S. Treasuries and that he would release that virus unless Obama agreed to a list of Russian demands.

No one would say Russia was asking for negotiations with Obama. They would say Russia was holding the U.S. economy hostage and demanding that Obama pay a ransom. No Republican -- and no Democrat -- would advice Obama to take that meeting. The sole question would be prevention and, if necessary, reprisal.

This is the core disagreement between the White House and the Republican Party. The Republican Party thinks it's offering the White House something it wants — the continued creditworthiness of the United States of America — in return for things the GOP wants, like a one-year delay on Obamacare.

But the White House doesn't see an increase in the debt limit as something that the Republicans are giving them. As Obama put it in his news conference: "Paying America's bills is not a concession to me. That's not doing me a favor."

If the Republicans just wanted negotiations, the Obama administration would be happy to oblige them. The White House, after all, has repeatedly said they're willing to negotiate with the Republicans over the deficit, over jobs, over sequestration, and much else. Republicans haven't been interested in those kinds of negotiations for some time. Indeed, after the fiscal cliff, Speaker John Boehner told Republicans that he was finished negotiating directly with Obama.

The reason Republicans aren't interested in those negotiations is they don't want to give anything up to get the things they want. That's why they like negotiating over the debt ceiling: Since they also don't want the the U.S. to lose its creditworthiness and fall back into financial crisis, raising the debt ceiling is not actually giving anything up. It's releasing a hostage they never wanted to shoot.

The GOP argues the fact that they don't want to vote to raise the debt ceiling makes it a concession to the White House. The White House disagrees. But that -- and not negotiations in general -- is the core issue. If Putin came to Obama with anything akin to the GOP's position on the debt ceiling, it would be perceived not as an opening for negotiations, but as a prelude to war.

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Neil Irwin · September 27, 2013