Welcome to the Era of Extortion Politics

By manufacturing the crisis over the extension of the debt ceiling for their own political gain, tea bagger Republicans not only broke one of their many sacred campaign pledges to voters last year, they also managed to regress American politics farther than ever from their constitutional ideals by ushering in a new era of what Steve Benen calls “extortion politics”:

I think this is arguably one of the more important realizations to take away from the current political landscape. Republicans aren’t just radicalized, aren’t just pursuing an extreme agenda, and aren’t just allergic to compromise. The congressional GOP is also changing the very nature of governing in ways with no modern precedent.

Welcome to the normalization of extortion politics.

In the debt-ceiling hostage fiction, Republicans are the hostage takers — the extortionists — while the U.S. economy and the financial well-being of American families are their victims. The hostage negotiator, of course, the would-be hero in the piece, is Pres. Obama.

Unfortunately, in this political drama, the hero did not ride to the victims’ rescue. Instead, he legitimized the terrorists’ demands by negotiating with them. By negotiating with them, he allowed them to win — not on points but on politics, which was really all that mattered to them.

Jonathan Chait traces the president’s undoing back to his budget battles with the Republicans in December, when he allowed them to pass a budget that required the Treasury to borrow billions more for additional spending without also raising the debt limit to accommodate the billions in over-spending they voted for:

“The correct response here was to refuse to negotiate. Obama simply needed to say, we’re raising the debt ceiling the way we always have, because the alternative is catastrophe. We can negotiate any policy change you want, but not with a gun to the head of the American economy.”
– Jonathan Chait

At the time, observers like Ezra Klein were noting how absurd it would be to let Republicans force through a deficit-increasing policy (extending the Bush tax cuts) and then let Republicans stick Democrats with the blame for the debt ceiling. A reporter even asked him about the Republican Party’s ability to use this vote as leverage, and Obama seemed not to grasp the point at all. Obama has implied that he couldn’t have received a debt ceiling hike, but I don’t think that’s correct.

Then, last spring, Obama committed blunder number two. Republicans began voicing opposition to raising the debt ceiling, or insisting on massive concessions in order to do so. The correct response here was to refuse to negotiate. Obama simply needed to say, we’re raising the debt ceiling the way we always have, because the alternative is catastrophe. We can negotiate any policy change you want, but not with a gun to the head of the American economy. Eventually, the business community would have pressured Republicans to relent. Instead, once Obama ascented to broadening the scope of the debate, business simply wanted a deal to get done, and it pressured both sides to compromise. (It is true that the complicity of the anti-deficit lobby in the Republican hostage gambit made it harder for Obama to insist on keeping the deficit and the debt ceiling separate.)

The third mistake lay in assuming Republicans would agree to raise tax revenue. I spoke several times with administration officials who asserted with total confidence that Republicans would simply have to acknowledge the need for more revenue. They betrayed a complete misunderstanding of the party they’re dealing with.

Once it had agreed to negotiate a ransom payment, the administration was left with a series of bad options. I think the current deal on offer is about as non-bad as it could have gotten. It managed to backload the timing of spending cuts to minimize damage to the recovery and protect programs for the most vulnerable beneficiaries (which also happen to be the most vulnerable programs.) I’ve argued that Obama should give up on trying to get Republicans to accept higher revenue and just sign an all-cuts agreement.

Furthermore, unlike many other liberals, I agree with a key element of the administration’s political calculation. The thinking is that Obama lost the support of a key centrist element of his coalition due to the perception that he’s an out-of-control spender who created big deficits. The perception is wrong, but that doesn’t really matter. Signing onto a major deficit reduction deal helps rebuild Obama’s image. That the deal consists entirely of spending cuts probably only helps. What’s more, recognizing that Democrats will never obtain a fiscal readjustment entirely on their own terms, I’m willing to swallow some cuts to Medicare and Social Security in the pursuit of deficit control.

Republicans’ objectives here had nothing to do with smaller government, fiscal responsibility or vaunted ideals of any sort. Their strategy in contriving the debt-ceiling crisis was to make the president look weak.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said plainly that the Republicans’ number one objective is to see to it that Barack Obama’s presidency fails. The easiest way to make him fail is to keep economic growth down and unemployment high — and the surefire way to accomplish both those goals is through austerity, by cutting spending and laying off public employees like policemen, firemen and teachers.

From the Republicans’ point of view, if hobbling the economy in order to damage the president politically triggers yet another recession, so be it. They see the economic hardship they would inflict on their constituents as nothing more than collateral damage in their quest for political power.

By permitting himself to be drawn into the Republicans’ charade — and then by giving into the extortionists’ demands time after time — Pres. Obama has allowed them to succeed.

Unless the president finds a way to negotiate with tea baggers from a position of strength over the next few months, at the very least, future presidents will blame him for presiding over a shift in the balance of power from the Executive Branch toward Congress. At worst, if Obama allows the economic terrorists to continue to win, future presidents of both parties will find themselves routinely negotiating with opposition-party extortionists in one bogus crisis after another.

One comment

  • Elias
    March 31, 2013 - 10:44 am | Permalink

    Extortion is a very bad practice.

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