Five Rules for Defeating Hostage taking Politics.
Many of us who worked so hard to get President Obama elected are deeply frustrated by the current state of politics. Although we may consider the debt ceiling agreement a particularly bad deal, it is how we got there and the sense that the entire Obama presidency has been hijacked, rather than the terms of the deal itself, that leads to such frustration. It’s “hostage taking politics” (HTP) that have us in a state.
Hostage taking politics can be defined in two ways. First, it is a situation in which a minority of lawmakers uses legislative rules and procedures to block normal majority rule. Second, it occurs when anyone blocks the necessary functioning of government in order to extract other concessions. HTP is not completely new. In particular, the Senate rules seem to encourage it. But its use has accelerated to the point it has become almost routine.
Combating hostage taking politics requires an entirely new way of thinking about the process of governing. Although not every situation will be the same, some basic rules can be applied to combat this pernicious but incredibly effective tactic. The sad truth is that the rules outlined here are very similar to those used in dealing with actual hostage situations.
No. 1: Get as many people to safety as possible.
The best way to keep hostages from being taken is to take them out of the danger zone. In political terms, this means never waiting to accomplish your policy goals and never refusing to use normal democratic procedure to accomplish them. A crucial mistake Obama made early in his term was not moving at a frantic pace to get things done and instead letting the threat of a Senate filibuster thwart him. You don’t need 60 votes in the Senate to get most things done. Similarly, the Democrats who controlled the 111th Congress made a grievous error in not using whatever procedures they could muster to push through an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the middle class while letting those on the wealthiest Americans expire. Had the Democratically controlled Congress moved then, the Republicans wouldn’t have been able to hold Democrats hostage during the lame duck session. Finding ways to bypass the Senate filibuster and enact House legislation on other topics would have helped. Obama still wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all of his agenda, but more could have been done. And that is the name of the game: getting more people to safety, turning more of your policy goals into laws.
No. 2: Call hostage taking what it is while the hostages are being taken.
One of the problems in dealing with political hostage taking is that people can’t as readily see the breach of law and order as they can in traditional hostage taking. If it is possible to take hostages without people noticing, it becomes dramatically easier to get away with it. That means whenever you believe a political hostage has been taken everyone on your side must say so, explicitly. Demand the hostage’s release; explain why the hostage is so important. This message can’t come from some and not others. It can’t be stated at some times and not others. And it has to come from the highest Democrat, which, at the moment, means the President. Unfortunately, if you level the hostage taking charge inconsistently, it’s far worse than not making the charge at all. You’ve placed the accusation within the realm of ordinary political posturing, diluting its effectiveness. Complaining about hostage taking once the hostage is free creates a similar problem. Instead, you have to respond to hostage taking with a timely and consistent message.
No. 3: No policy giveaways.
When people are taking hostages to gain their policy goals, it is very important to never give away any of these policy goals for free. This is not the same thing as HTP. The difference is that the opposition turns to HTP because its policies would not be enacted under normal democratic procedures; yours would. The perfect example is the middle class tax cuts in the Recovery Act. Middle class tax cuts can be considered progressive in that they give more money to those lower on the economic scale, but it also can be considered conservative because it shrinks the amount of money available to government. Not to mention they are very popular with the public. So it makes sense for a Democratic President to seek them, but only with Republican support. Instead, the Democrats agreed to those cuts without extracting any concessions from the Republicans. Never meet someone halfway if they have no intention joining you there. What ended up happening is that Republicans got the tax cuts without even having to negotiate for them, plus a few Senate Republicans were able to extract even more concessions in order to win their support on the final bill and put the bill beyond the reach of the filibuster. The Republicans got a lot of what they wanted and they got to vote against the bill. In fact, all the House Republicans voted against the Recovery Act. This was clearly a case of having your cake and eating it too.
You can’t do policy like that anymore. The opposition should not be able to get its policy goals if it is unwilling to provide any votes for the compromise package. In short, the compromise position can’t happen if no actual compromise happens. If you do policy giveaways, you have fewer options for future negotiations and encourage hostage taking.
No. 4: Let them kill a hostage.
This is a difficult lesson to accept but it is crucial. To really drive home the point that your opponents are a bunch of hostage takers, you have to let them kill a hostage. If every time a hostage is taken a ransom is paid and no one gets hurt, it begins to look as if this is not hostage taking but merely the normal process. For it to be seen as wrong, someone has to die. Now it is very important to choose which hostage dies and which one doesn’t. The debt ceiling is a lousy hostage to let die. There’s little upside – the public isn’t going to rally in defense of raising the debt ceiling as it would to preserve Medicare for example -- and there’s a huge downside if the nation actually defaults. The best hostage to have let die was the entire Bush tax-cuts. If Republicans were only willing to extend all or none of them, the Democrats should have let them extend none of them. They then should have attached a middle-class cut to anything that moved and forced Republicans to vote again and again against a middle class tax cut.
In fact, Republicans knew just how bad a hostage the Bush tax cuts were. So in the lame duck, they grabbed every hostage available -- unemployment insurance, a repeal of don’t- ask-don’t-tell, and an arms treaty. The additional hostages put tremendous strain on the Republican position because Republicans in more moderate districts might have suffered if the GOP was responsible for blocking any of these things. Yet, by refusing to call their bluff, the Democrats added to the power of hostage taking. Going forward, the recently passed trigger cuts that will take place if the “Super Congress” doesn’t reach an alternative deal seem like the kind of hostage Democrats have to be willing to let die. It isn’t perfect, especially because of the Medicare provider cuts. But if the other side doesn’t believe you will let a hostage die, it will keep asking for and getting bigger and bigger ransoms until you are really governing for your opponents.
No. 5: Politics all the time [the no negotiation rule]
This rule is probably even harder to accept than letting a hostage die. HTP requires a new way of thinking about politics. The idea that there is governing time and political time must be obliterated. You can never simply relax and focus on determining the appropriate policy outcome because you will always encounter difficulty in getting those outcomes enacted into law. Consider for example Republican slow downs on judicial nominations and the Senate minority’s abject refusal to consider any nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Not all Republicans are hostage takers, but many are. That means you must do everything you can at all times to diminish their power. You are not merely defending your policy proscriptions; you are defending the normal functioning of a democratic country.
Some advisers may highlight the risks of appearing too political while trying to govern. But the country that vociferously complains about “partisanship” is actually dissatisfied mostly by the government’s inability to accomplish anything that helps them. This frustration is compound by societal changes that are moving too fast for many people. So people voted to change parties in the House in 2010 but this did nothing to improve the public’s perception. The country wants results and will punish the party in power for failing not for being too partisan.
Perhaps once the minority could use the partisanship of the majority as an excuse for refusing to compromise. But Democrats should recognize now that in the age of HTP the Republicans don’t need any excuses. Unless HTP can be defeated, the process of accomplishing anything will become so difficult that hope for positive change will be a distant memory and any attempt to summon the public toward progress will be doomed to fail.
2012 must be a referendum on hostage taking politics. If instead the election is a demographic slugfest, Democrats may be able to hold the White House but we will guarantee more frustrating results. Instead, it must be clear that we want to do important things while our opponents are holding the country, the economy, and progress back. They are pushing a narrow agenda the country doesn’t come anywhere close to supporting. It must be crystal clear exactly what will happen if the voters vote for us. If we are blessed enough to win on these grounds, our opponents won’t be able to take hostages to thwart what the people voted for. Then and only then will the other side be willing to join in governing instead of winning by hostage taking.