The Grand Old Hostage Party
The nation’s creditworthiness isnt a partisan issue. No one – save perhaps a few tea party crackpots – wants to see the US default on its statutory obligations to its creditors, most of whom are American citizens and corporations. But in 2011, and again in 2013, that didnt prevent the GOP from threatening to force a default if its demands werent met.
These were particularly bizarre episodes in American politics. The two major parties agree on many fundamental matters of governance, covering the vast majority of public spending: education, social security, defense, medicare, highways, agriculture, etc. Debate primarily occurs on smaller spending issues. And resolution usually involves compromise, where each party gets some of its desires met and concedes some to the other party.
The debt-ceiling crises of the recent past were different. Instead of the usual “give us this in exchange for that”, the GOP tried “give us this or else.” Specifically, the GOP threatened to force the US to default if its demands werent met. To be clear: default is not a GOP policy goal. It’s simply a threat to do gratuitous harm to the country. In fact, there’s nothing preventing Democrats from using exactly the same tactic: e.g., give us a public option for health insurance, or we’ll make the US default; raise taxes on investors, or we’ll refuse to fund the Pentagon. Easy-peazy.
Even though the debt-ceiling crises were resolved before the US defaulted, the GOP ploy imposed real harm on the US, which saw its creditworthiness downgraded for the first time in history. Estimates of the costs to the country as a consequence run into the billions.
Analogies to hostage-taking are apt. Hostage takers commonly have no desire to harm their hostages. Rather, they use the credible threat of harm to extort what they can from the people who do care. This leads us to the most remarkable insight to come out of the debt ceiling crises: The GOP would only use such tactics because they believe Democrats care more about the nation’s well-being than they do. Try imagining a disagreement between two parents, in which one parent threatens to drown a child in the bathtub if they dont get their way. It’s the same tactic in a different setting, and, again, it only makes sense if the parent making the threat believes the other parent to be more concerned about the child.
Today the GOP is trying the same ploy with a new hostage – threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unless their demands are met. Again, shutting down DHS is not a policy goal – it’s simply a threat to do gratuitous harm to the country. A shutdown would compromise the safety and security of ordinary Americans, impairing the Department’s ability to control the borders and prevent domestic terrorism. And of course any would-be terrorist can time their plans to exploit the situation.
The GOP’s venality cannot be overstated. Keeping in mind that Democrats are entirely able to use the same strategy – meet our demands, or else – the reason why one party has done it 3 times in 4 years, while the other party hasnt tried once, shows that the GOP itself believes Democrats to be more committed to the nation’s well-being than are they. Many of us have long suspected that conservatives had greater fealty to their empty, half-understood ideals than to the country those ideals were meant to serve. But now we know conservatives think so too.
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