Plenty of blame to go around

John Cole said something interesting last night, which I found compelling: “You don’t ‘win’ a hostage crisis. You resolve it.”

That seems right to me. The debt deal reached yesterday offers practically nothing in the way of redeeming qualities, and no one involved in the process should walk away feeling good about themselves or the system that led to the agreement. Assuming this deal passes — an assumption that may yet be premature — the question then turns to who deserves the blame.

Right now, my sense is most of the rage on the left is being directed at President Obama for, to use John’s frame, resolving the hostage crisis by meeting many of the criminals’ demands. And if you’re looking for me to defend the deal the White House agreed to, you’re going to be disappointed.

But if I’m making a list of people who’ve disgusted me in this process, I’m inclined to put Republicans at the top. It was the radicalized Republican Party that took the nation hostage. It was the radicalized Republican Party that threatened to crash the economy on purpose unless Democrats met their demands. It was the radicalized Republican Party that refused to compromise. It was the radicalized Republican Party that launched the most dangerous stunt in generations, putting the world in jeopardy. It was the radicalized Republican Party that normalized extortion politics, changing the very nature of governing.

Am I supposed to be angrier with the radicals who held a gun to our heads, or those who prevented them from pulling the trigger?

The New York TimesJeff Zeleny said today President Obama “can no longer make the argument that he has changed the way Washington works.” For crying out loud, has anyone actually seen what GOP extremists have done to American politics?

The president’s critics, of course, aren’t saying Obama was wrong to prevent a catastrophe; they’re saying Obama could have averted a disaster more effectively, by giving up less and meeting fewer Republican demands.

This is not without merit. As many have noted over the last 24 hours, the president might have been able to push for a debt-ceiling increase last December (though it may have necessitated another in 2012). He might have bluffed on the 14th Amendment and the “Constitutional Option,” even if he perceived the tack as illegitimate, just for the sake of leverage. He might have been as stubborn and inflexible as his rivals, and then when the economy collapsed, blamed them.

And why didn’t the president do this? Jonathan Cohn’s assessment sounds right to me.

My guess is that he pursued this strategy because he didn’t want to poison the atmosphere for negotiations and believed (genuinely, accurately) that moderate entitlement cuts should be part of a balanced deficit reduction agreement. But the atmosphere was poisoned from the start and Republicans were never going to support a balanced agreement. He was trying to do the right thing when it was not possible to do the right thing. It may not have made for bad politics, but it certainly made for bad policy.

In this sense, Obama’s mistake wasn’t about strength or ideology; it was underestimating at the outset what the GOP is capable of. The president thought if he were responsible, Republicans would be responsible. If he made concessions, they’d make concessions. If he persuaded the American mainstream, this would have some sort of effect on the process.

He thought for a while, in other words, the madman with the gun to our heads was open to compromise and was willing to be sensible. He was very wrong.

Greg Sargent noted yesterday, “If Dems had refused to budge from the demand for a clean hike, would Republicans have blinked — or would they have allowed default? The bottom line is Dems weren’t prepared to take that risk.”

Right, and Republicans were. It was a game of chicken in which one side didn’t want to crash and the other didn’t care. The GOP convinced everyone the party wasn’t bluffing — these guys really are that dangerously crazy. Their concern for the national interest really is that weak.

When it comes to pointing fingers, it’s a realization that’s worth keeping in mind.