President Obama’s assertion that he won’t negotiate is inexplicable, unless the name of the game here is not a deal or economic survival but political obliteration of his political opponents.
The White House will counter that they will negotiate, after the continuing resolution and/or debt-ceiling bills are cleanly passed. But that is a distinction without a difference, and White House staffers know it. In actual war you can demand surrender and then negotiation, but in politics the other side has to survive and, hence, you must avoid making the terms so onerous that they can’t be accepted. (Unless you think you are “winning” and the goal is to make the other guys look bad.)
When you think about it, the “no negotiations” stance is silly. As ABC’s Cokie Roberts put it on “This Week,” “I might say this whole business of, you know, we won’t negotiate with a gun to your head, actually I would prefer to negotiate with a gun to my head rather than have somebody shoot me.” Or the hostage (in this case, the U.S. economy).
Others have noticed that the hostage metaphor the administration uses is inapt, as every city’s SWAT team will attest. 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. Christopher Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, in an interview with the Daily Beast, observed, “When you refuse to talk, then you have blinders on…and it happens to be typical thinking of someone who either doesn’t talk at all or completely gives in.”
So, in Roberts’s apt phrasing, “What is the point of the White House pushing them so hard that they have to cry uncle?” Well, this is the difference between the blood sport of campaigning and the obligation of governing. This White House is as expert at the former as anyone who has run for office. It truly excelled and relished at painting Mitt Romney as a murderer, a perjurer, a tax cheat and a job-outsourcing villain. But the same moral superiority that allows one to destroy the other guy in a campaign — the ends of election justify any conduct — inhibits graciousness and effectiveness in office.
When you want above all else to make the opposition look bad and set them up for failure (which, by the way, means a disaster for the country), then you decide to push them so hard they have to cry uncle. And when they are just as obstinate as you, they refuse to and the hostages suffer the consequences.
The solution is so obvious — sit down and talk about the debt, the CR and the spending issues all together — that we have to conclude the White House is intentionally ignoring it. But its political goal — evisceration of the GOP and taking the House majority — is as unrealistic as defunding Obamacare. Rather than pursue the unattainable, the White House must give up the notion it can ruin the other side.
It would be nice if the president then could embrace just as fiercely the notion that the chief executive is the only one who can unify the country and forge necessary compromise, which requires him to engage with and treat the other side with respect. That must be galling to Democrats, which, come to think of it, proves my point that they are out for blood and not for a deal.