The efficacy of a hostage strategy

THE EFFICACY OF A HOSTAGE STRATEGY…. Matt Yglesias offered a helpful reminder this morning about leverage.

Details on the appropriations deal are still hard to come by, but you don’t need the details to know that substantial short-term cuts in domestic discretionary spending will hurt the poor while harming macroeconomic performance. The problem with not agreeing to the deal, of course, is that a government shutdown would also hurt the poor while harming macroeconomic performance.

If you genuinely don’t care about the interests of poor people and stand to benefit electorally from weak economic growth, this gives you a very strong hand to play as a hostage taker. And John Boehner is willing to play that hand.

Right. A hostage strategy works well when the hostage taker makes it clear that killing the hostage is a perfectly viable option.

In this case, President Obama knew he was facing an unpleasant choice: accept spending cuts, which would hurt working families and undermine the economy, or allow Republicans to shut down the government, which would hurt working families and undermine the economy. As much as I really don’t like the agreement reached last night, I’m not unsympathetic to the dilemma.

But it’s worth appreciating the dynamic itself. The moment it was clear that the White House and congressional Democrats were determined to avert a shutdown, and congressional Republicans saw a shutdown as a reasonable, if not attractive, option — one that their base would celebrate — the rules of the game were already written to guarantee a discouraging result.

By some measures, Dems entered the process with the better hand. Democrats not only had the White House and the Senate majority, but polls showed the American mainstream opposed to the GOP agenda. But they also made clear that they were ready to make concessions — because they were determined to save that hostage, and Republicans didn’t much care either way.

Or as Greg Sargent put it this morning, “Republicans knew full well that the White House wouldn’t allow a government shutdown, allowing them to continue to move the spending-cut goalposts in the knowledge that Dems would follow — again ensuring that the debate unfolded on the GOP’s turf.”

The variable here would, ideally, be electoral considerations — Republicans wouldn’t kill the hostage because they’d be afraid of a voter backlash, creating a built-in incentive for the GOP to act responsibly. In theory, this gives Dems at least some leverage, too — “If you shut down the government, we’ll blame you and you’ll lose in 2012.”

So why doesn’t that work more? Probably because Republicans know that news organizations feel obligated to blame “both sides” at all times for everything, enough so that the GOP is willing to take its chances. Besides, even if they are to blame, GOP officials can count on the party, the Koch brothers, and Karl Rove to run a bunch of attack ads that will help them stay in office anyway.