the national interest

Let Me Explain How Extortion Works, Republicans

We got to explain this to you? Photo: HBO/via Getty

Yesterday, a couple of news outlets reported that John Boehner has privately told colleagues he will let Democrats vote for a bill to raise the debt ceiling rather than allow default. That would seem to severely crimp Boehner’s ability to threaten Democrats with default. Today, some Republican House members assure National Review that, no, no, the threat is still somehow there:

We are not going to default on the U.S. debt. We never have, we never will. If anybody defaults, it’ll be the president, who doesn’t write the check. But the speaker was very clear today that, while we’re not going to default, but there will be a negotiation. Even though the president says there will not be, there will be,” said Representative Phil Roe of Tennessee.

Boehner argued “the media is wrong,” said Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, and that Boehner’s insistence that the government will not default on its debts “shouldn’t be misconstrued as saying we’re not going to challenge Democrats in that debate.”

They’re either obscuring, or failing to understand, how threats work. Of course, threats often employ a level of obtuseness. But ultimately, there’s either a threat, or there isn’t. Suppose a couple of gentlemen from the Soprano family stop by your coffee shop and urge you to contribute to the local Merchant’s Protective Cooperative:

They’re proposing a negotiation for some auxiliary security services. The question is what happens if the negotiation fails. The Sopranos are saying that the best alternative to a negotiated agreement is that they will beat up the manager. Likewise, the Republicans want to have a negotiation over Obamacare and other aspects of fiscal policy under the premise that failure to reach a deal Republicans like will lead to the world economy melting down. The Republicans are currently contemplating a “negotiation” that isn’t as grandiose as killing Obamacare but is definitely not anything Democrats would agree to without a gun to their head:

There will be a “mechanism” for revenue-neutral tax reform, ushered by Ryan and Michigan’s Dave Camp, that will encourage deeper congressional talks in the coming year. There will be entitlement-reform proposals, most likely chained CPI and means-testing Social Security; there will also be some health-care provisions, such as a repeal of the medical-device tax, which has bipartisan support in both chambers.

So, tax cuts and cuts to retirement programs, and no new revenue? What would make Obama sign that, other than a threat of default?

If the alternative to a fiscal agreement is, instead, that the debt ceiling is lifted, the world economy does not melt down, and the status quo remains in place, then that’s a different thing. You can still have a negotiation. Likewise, a coffee shop manager can still discuss if the Soprano goons have any useful supplemental security services to offer. The Republicans are saying now that they won’t melt down the world economy, but they will have a negotiation. Well, sure. But a negotiation is not a shakedown. Pretending the two are the same doesn’t make it so.