How Obama Can Deal with the Irate Republican Army

During the current budget impasse, the Republican strategy has been some version of "do X or Y gets it." Which prompts the inevitable question: How would Obama respond if he were dealing with terrorists?

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Throughout the current budget impasse, the Republican strategy has been some version of "do X or Y gets it" — drawing analogies to a hostage situation or the actions of terrorists. Which prompts the inevitable question: How would Obama respond if he were dealing with hostage-takers or terrorists?

The short answer is: Probably exactly as he is now. But we'll get to that.

The crisis

On September 20, the House passed a resolution to fund the government until the middle of December, excluding any money for Obamacare. Everyone knew this wouldn't pass; even its chief advocate, Ted Cruz, argued that his party should just sort of hope Democrats would be so eager to avoid a shutdown that they would sign off on the idea. Here, the X was "defund Obamacare," the Y was "the government." Both the Xs and the Ys have changed — X: "approve Keystone," Y: "the debt ceiling;" X: "cut taxes", Y: "the economy" — but the push has been the same. Do what we want (and which we can't get through a Democratic Senate), or we'll let the country shut down / default on our debts.

Eventually — literally one hour after the threat of shutting down the government came to pass — the position shifted. We are ready to talk, the Republicans said. All we want is negotiations to defuse this situation. It's the president that's being unreasonable here, they argued, why won't he negotiate? It's a strategy brilliantly articulated in this now-famous tweet from ThinkProgress' Judd Legum. "Let's talk about what I can burn down." "No." "You aren't compromising!"

This, too, fits the pattern of those taking hostages or performing acts of terror — or, for that matter, those advocating for social change through non-violent protest. We will do something you don't like so that you change your behavior, so that you are forced to address the concerns that we are raising. As Business Insider's Josh Barro points out, you can't simply ignore a bad actor and hope they'll change their ways.

The difference in labeling for various protests hinges on that word "non-violent" — and your interpretation of which category the Republican protest falls in may depend on your assessment of the damage a shutdown or debt default threatens. Perhaps you agree with Rep. Ted Yoho, who compared his party's obstructionism to Rosa Parks. Or perhaps you agree with New York's Jonathan Chait, who called House Speaker John Boehner a hostage-taker.

Dealing with hostage-takers

Let's assume you agree with the latter (for which there is a much stronger case to be made). How should the president respond to Republicans who are taking the economy hostage? The Daily Beast's John Avlon asked a hostage negotiator this exact question.

“It actually reminds me of a prison siege,” says Christopher Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, as he surveys the dysfunctional congressional deadlock. “The opposition isn’t particularly organized. The smart move is to pick among the leadership on the other side who is the most reasonable. Then you empower them by talking with them and granting some sort of small concession. And they suddenly gain a lot of influence on their side.”

Voss argued that compassion was the best strategy for the administration, to offer a sort of feel-your-pain nod and an extended hand — which the Democrats' fiery language hasn't exactly done — while trying to divide the opposition. He also suggested that other prominent Republicans might step up to help resolve the tension, though his suggestion of using George W. Bush as an interlocutor might justifiably be considered with skepticism.

Dealing with terrorists

The administration's hard line indicates that they see their Republican opponents more as terrorists than hostage-takers. (We assume Obama doesn't consider Boehner to be like Rosa Parks.) It was a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, that outlined the standard response to terrorist threats: no negotiations.

It is another group of Republicans that offers a reminder of how governments actually deal with terrorists. For decades the Irish Republican Army conducted a campaign of terror throughout Britain. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher publicly disavowed any negotiations with the IRA. But secretly, those negotiations happened, through backchannels. The British couldn't risk the appearance of placating the IRA, but were obviously willing to do what they could to stem the violence.

Whether or not that's happening now in Washington isn't clear, although obviously Democrats and Republicans are discussing options at some level. What is clear is that the path that led to peace in the United Kingdom came a bit later. In 1997, then-prime minister Tony Blair announced that he would conduct peace talks with the IRA — exactly the sort of negotiation that House Republicans now seek. But Blair's announcement had a predication. The Times reported at the time:

Mo Mowlam, who as Northern Ireland Secretary is the highest official in this British province, said she had decided after consulting security officials and Prime Minister Tony Blair that the cease-fire renewed by the I.R.A. six weeks ago was genuine.

That persuaded her to invite Sinn Fein, the I.R.A. political wing, to the talks, she said.

This is the same stipulation the president insists upon: Once the threat of violence is lifted, negotiations can begin. NBC News noted the president's comments late last week, echoing ones he'd made previously: "I'm happy to have negotiations but we can't do it with a gun held to the head of the American people." That "gun" is comprised of the various Ys: Raise the debt ceiling, pass a funding bill, and then let's negotiate. Unilaterally disarm, in other words, and we can talk.

He reiterated that on Tuesday, following reports that the Republicans would again call for negotiations over the budget. From a White House report on a conversation between Blair Obama and Boehner: "[T]he President is willing to negotiate with Republicans -- after the threat of government shutdown and default have been removed – over policies that Republicans think would strengthen the country."

There's a good political reason that the president won't negotiate over the debt ceiling, as we've noted before. Doing so would simply make any future need to raise the debt ceiling an opportunity for similar terrorism. That's one disadvantage the Republicans face in their efforts to leverage points of crisis to their political advantage: there aren't very many of them. He can wait out the Republicans better than Thatcher could the IRA because the opportunities for making mischief are far fewer. His goal isn't just to get through this debate with no additional damage; it's to win the War on Political Terror once and for all.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.