House Republicans’ Ransom Demands Falling

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A hundred thousand dollars and a fueled-up jet? Fifty thousand and a half-fueled car? A free bus ticket and a gift certificate for TCBY? Photo: Warner Bros., Getty Images, iStockphoto

One way to understand the dysfunction within the Republican Party is to think of it as a hostage scheme that spun out of control. The plan, originally formulated by Paul Ryan and other party leaders, involved a more aggressive reprise of the 2011 negotiations, where Republicans would use the threat of default, along with sequestration, to force President Obama to accept unfavorable budget terms. The plan was hijacked by Ted Cruz and transformed into a scheme using a less effective hostage threat (shutting down the government rather than defaulting) but tethered to the much more grandiose ransom of repealing Obamacare. As the Cruz scheme disintegrates around the Republicans, the original leaders are attempting to reassert control and revert to the original plan.

The subtext of op-eds today by Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan is a promise to ratchet down their ransom terms. Neither op-ed mentions any demands related to Obamacare. Ryan proposes to trade higher short-term discretionary government spending for permanent cuts to tax rates and retirement programs. “We can work together,” he writes. “We can do some good.”

The policy demands in Ryan’s op-ed are sufficiently vague that, if viewed as an opening bid, they would not completely preclude some kind of deal if he actually wants to bargain. The trouble is that Ryan’s entire history strongly suggests he does not want to deal. Every major attempt to create bipartisan budget negotiations has been quashed by Ryan. He voted against the Bowles-Simpson proposal, kiboshed a 2011 agreement between John Boehner and President Obama, then single-handedly blew up a bipartisan Senate budget deal.

Obama’s reelection has not prompted Ryan to veer from this strategy. Last spring, the president tried to spur bipartisan negotiations by compromising with himself in his budget, including cuts to Social Security and Medicare along with reducing tax deductions. Ryan waved it away and made no counteroffer. Instead, working through what Republicans called the “Jedi Council,” Ryan crafted a strategy of using the debt ceiling to extract unreciprocated concessions. He spent much of the year repeatedly turning down a budget conference on the assumption that he could get a better deal by threatening default. He confidently assured Republicans that Obama would fold and bargain for the debt ceiling. (National Review’s Jonathan Strong two weeks ago: “I asked Ryan if he believes President Obama’s steadfast vows that he won’t negotiate over the debt ceiling. His reaction? You’ve got to be kidding me. ‘Oh, nobody believes that.’”)

Is it possible Ryan has undergone some deep-rooted mental conversion and now wants a regular, bipartisan budget negotiation where the two parties make trade-offs? It’s possible, sure. But then why would he be demanding that the debt ceiling and the government shutdown be part of the negotiations? This is very simple: If the implicit or explicit alternative to an agreement is that you blow up the world economy, then you’re not negotiating — you’re extorting.

Still, Cantor and Ryan are clearly retreating. Cracks are forming everywhere in the Republican line. A senior House Republican floated to CNN a short-term debt-ceiling hike. Wall Street is starting to wake up to the danger of the debt-ceiling threat and is pressuring House Republicans not to carry it out. Republicans are privately expressing “grave reservations” about the debt-limit threat. The Senate is close to enough votes to break a filibuster and pass an extension of the debt limit, and in the unlikely event moderate Republicans back away and Republicans decide to filibuster anyway, Democrats may nuke the filibuster to pass a debt-limit hike.

So a Senate bill to hike the debt limit appears near certain. It’s likewise certain that the House will pass nothing. The House GOP’s implacable wing will block any debt-limit bill, even one filled with all their demands. The only way Republicans could pass a debt-limit increase of any kind is with Democratic votes, which in turn means the bill won’t be able to attach any conditions. The House Republican leadership is trapped, having sold their party on promises of a ransom they cannot deliver.

The single most implausible element of the House leadership’s "let’s negotiate" gambit is the premise that a bipartisan budget deal would satisfy the Republican base. Any bipartisan deal, even one heavily slanted to the Republican side, would enrage conservatives. Even the tiniest concession — easing sequestration, closing a couple of token tax loopholes — would be received on the right as a betrayal. Loss aversion is a strong human emotion, and especially strong among movement conservatives. Concessions given away will dwarf any winnings in their mind. Boehner, Ryan, and Cantor have spent months regaling conservatives with promises of rich ransoms to come. Coming back with an actual negotiated settlement would enrage the right.

The most enjoyable outcome would be to watch all of them — Boehner, Ryan, Cantor — be eaten alive by the wolves they’ve nurtured. But of course, the threat of this outcome is the very thing that may encourage them to allow an economic crisis — a man forced to choose between saving his job and saving his country is dangerous, especially if that man is John Boehner.

But the current Republican line does suggest a way out: if Republicans “win” a promise to negotiate the budget, with the debt ceiling not being subject to the outcome of the negotiations. That this has actually been Obama’s goal all along, and the thing Republicans have been trying to avoid, does not mean Republicans can’t talk themselves into it. The negotiation would probably end in a stalemate, or possibly a few small changes, but by the time it was finished the crisis would be over and conservative activists would have moved on to other issues — a new Obama scandal, maybe.

The insistent talking point that Obama won’t negotiate is a preposterous form of propaganda. But it has been taken up by a number of eager conservative pundits who seem to actually believe it. What if conservatives can be made to believe their own talking point — to believe that forcing Obama to negotiate the budget is the party’s actual goal here? Conservative self-delusion got us into this crisis. It could also get us out.