Making the hostage strategy explicit

President Obama met with several leading congressional Republicans yesterday to discuss budget cuts and the debt ceiling, and not surprisingly, there wasn’t much in the way of progress. GOP leaders postured; Obama pressed for compromise; and by the end, the two sides appeared no closer to a resolution than when they started.

There was a general agreement that some kind of deal had to be struck before the end of the month before the GOP strategy starts doing serious damage to the U.S. economy, but that only helped to add a timeline to the ransom note.

Indeed, one of the more striking aspects of yesterday’s gathering was the increasingly-explicit nature of the Republican hostage strategy.

…Boehner’s let’s-get-a-deal-done stance masks a deeper belief within the House Republican Conference — that Obama will back down eventually and agree to its demands, forcing Capitol Hill Democrats to follow suit.

“Of course, it’s dangerous,” a House Republican close to Boehner said of the politics of a government default. “But it’s dangerous for everybody, especially the president. At the end of the day, [Obama] will have to give in.”

“Who has egg on their face if there is a sovereign debt crisis, House Republicans or the president?” asked another senior GOP lawmaker.

With a potential debt default by the U.S. government just two months off, and a continued standoff between the White House and GOP congressional leaders on how to move forward in boosting that limit, Republican lawmakers say publicly and privately that they believe Obama will be the one who has to cave.

To be sure, the hostage-strategy dynamic isn’t new, but it’s uncommon for Republican members of Congress to be this candid about their plan out loud. One leading GOP lawmaker acknowledged that the Republican plan is “dangerous,” but the party doesn’t care. Another conceded that the GOP is inviting a “sovereign debt crisis,” but figures Obama would get the blame, so Republicans don’t care about that, either.

The key to an effective hostage strategy is creating a credible threat. When the hostage taker has a gun to the head of hostage, those expected to pay the ransom have to genuinely believe the bad guy really will pull the trigger. Yesterday, the Republican message to the president wasn’t subtle: we really will pull the trigger and then blame you for not paying the ransom.

This, of course, makes the prospect of compromise that much more ridiculous. As far as Republicans are concerned, there’s no need to compromise — they’re the ones with the gun and the hostage. Why strike a deal? If Obama caves, they get what they want. If Obama stands firm, and the GOP deliberately destroys the economy, Republicans will blame the president and destroy his chances of re-election. As far as the GOP leadership is concerned, all they have to do is wait.

In the abstract, this is arguably one of the great political scandals of recent American history. There is no modern precedent for a political party acting like an organized crime family this shamelessly. The American public isn’t hearing much about these tactics, but I can’t help but wonder what the mainstream would think if someone were to tell them that the Republican Party intends to cause a recession, on purpose, unless Democrats drastically cut Medicare and other popular domestic programs.

Basic American patriotism — wanting what’s best for your country — would seemingly prevent such thuggish tactics. And yet, here we are.

As for whether the president intends to pay the ransom, your guess is as good as mine.