In Praise of Hostage Taking
Hostage-takers, in most movies, are bad guys. So it's curious conservatives are fully embracing the liberal talking point that House Republicans took the U.S. economy hostage during the debt limit fight of 2011, and plan to make hostage-taking the cause célèbre before the U.S. defaults in March.
Hostage-takers, in most movies, are bad guys. Politicians, presumably, don't want to be seen as bad guy hostage-takers, but more like good-guy rescuers. And opinion writers, you might expect, would prefer to portray ideologically similar politicians as good guys and their opposition as bad guys. So it's curious conservatives are fully embracing the liberal talking point that House Republicans took the U.S. economy hostage during the debt limit fight of 2011, and plan to make hostage-taking the cause célèbre before the U.S. defaults in March. New York's Jonathan Chait hilariously compared House Republicans to the nihilistic hostage takers of The Big Lebowski. The wise elders of the Republican Party have been trying to talk the more wild-eyed conservatives away from using the debt ceiling as a fight. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page wrote on Friday, "We'll support efforts to cut spending and reform entitlements, but the political result will be far worse if Republicans start this fight only to cave in the end. You can't take a hostage you aren't prepared to shoot."
But the message does not seem to be getting through. The National Review's Richard Lowry had his own column: "Take the Hostage." He asks, "why is the president outraged that someone would use the leverage of an impending event that everyone wants to avoid and that would damage the economy to his negotiating advantage?" Over on NewsMax, Club for Growth president Chris Chocola is into the leverage game, too. "[Republicans] have a very simple message that they have to deliver, but they have to be willing to back up their position with action. They have to be willing to essentially shut down the government or else none of this matters." It's not just bloggers and lobbyists. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has embraced the debt limit-as-threat rhetoric, too. “It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country, rather than plod along the path of Greece, Italy and Spain," he wrote in a Houston Chronicle op-ed.
Conservatives did not always advocate so openly that Republican lawmakers be really and willing to risk the full faith and credit of the United States, nor did they say this is what Republican lawmakers wanted to do. In August 2011, New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat put hostage-taking in scare quotes, and noted, "it’s an odd sort of hostage situation when the hostage seems to want to be there," arguing that Democrats always negotiate on taxes. Today, the change is not just that conservatives are embracing this liberal talking point as their own. It's that they're doing it completely cynically. In 2011, you had some people -- Michele Bachmann, for instance, at least claim that failing to raise the debt limit wouldn't be so bad. "I've been in Washington for a long time, and I've seen smoke and mirrors time and time again," Bachmann said in June 2011, calling the talk of the economic damage from a default "scare tactics." The next month, she shrugged, "As we debate the debt ceiling, the players seem to have lost all sense of proportion." This was widely viewed as crazy. In 2013, conservatives are not making the claim that failing to raise the debt limit would have few negative consequences. Instead, they're just urging Republicans to use the crazy.
Today, the problem is not the political costs, but the lack of Republican unity to hold out for a great deal. "At some point we have to be serious about this," Chocola told Newsmax. "At some point, Republicans have to do what Republicans say they have to do — and they have to stand up for limited government, spending restraint, and fiscal responsibility." It's not that the GOP has too many hostage-taking Bachmanns. It's that it doesn't have enough of them.