President Obama spoke yesterday to the Business Roundtable, and used some language to describe Republican tactics that raised a few eyebrows – not because he was incorrect, but because his word choice was provocative.
In his remarks, Mr. Obama accused what he called “a faction” of Republicans in the House of trying to “extort” him by refusing to raise the nation’s debt ceiling unless the president’s health care plan is repealed.
“You have never in the history of the United States seen the threat of not raising the debt ceiling to extort a president or a governing party,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s irresponsible.”
Mr. Obama called upon the business leaders to try to convince lawmakers to avoid the kind of “brinksmanship” that would lead to promises of “apocalypse” every few months. “What I will not do is to create a habit, a pattern whereby the full faith and credit of the united states ends up being a bargaining chip to make policy,” he said. “I’m tired of it,” he added. “And I suspect you are too.”
For the president to publicly reference Republican “extortion” tactics struck some as excessive. That’s a shame; Obama’s right.
Let’s step back for a moment. A traditional, transactional method of governing was in place in Washington for generations, and it worked fairly well. In some cases, policymakers would rely on intra-policy cooperation (“I’ll go along with some of the provisions you want if you go along with some of the provisions I want”), and in other cases it’s been inter-policy cooperation (“I can help move that bill you like if you help me move this other bill that I like”).
The transactional model was never easy, of course, and parties that were supposed to disagree usually did, but governing happened. Bills passed. Policymaking and compromises existed. The nation did not simply bounce from one self-imposed, manufactured crisis to the next.
In the wake of the radicalization of Republican politics, the system broke down, largely because GOP officials came to believe they can no longer accept concessions on anything, and anyone who dares compromise with those they disagree with deserves to lose in a Republican primary.
What matters, of course, is what’s replaced transactional politics.
I tend to describe it as extortion politics, which we may be getting used to, but which has no modern precedent in the American system of government.
Consider an example from earlier this year. House Republicans approved a budget plan and challenged Senate Democrats to do the same, assuming they’d fail. The GOP miscalculated and Senate Dems approved their own budget plan in the spring.
From there, lawmakers were supposed to enter bipartisan, bicameral negotiations, which is what always happens when the House and Senate approve competing budget blueprints. But a funny thing happened – Republicans refused to enter the budget talks they said they wanted.
It hasn’t generated much attention, but it’s important to understand why. GOP lawmakers couldn’t go to the negotiating table because that would mean … negotiating. Republicans weren’t prepared to compromise on anything, so why bother with budget talks? What GOP officials wanted instead was to wait until the fall when they might at least try to claim leverage in an extortion plot.
In other words, hostages have become a prerequisite to Republican governance.
We’ve actually reached the point at which the GOP seems genuinely and literally confused about the meaning of the word “compromise.” Consider this item from a week ago:
One group of conservatives on Thursday pressed what they called a compromise: a one-year stopgap spending bill that would raise the debt ceiling for a year, delay all aspects of the health care law for a year, and give back some of the Pentagon cuts as a sweetener. Backers insisted on Thursday that it was a package Mr. Obama should be able to accept.
Got that? In this approach, Republicans would get the health care delay they want and the spending levels they want. What would Democrats get? Nothing except the relief that comes with knowing that the hostage the GOP was threatening would live to see another day.
This, in the delusional minds of congressional Republicans, is not only a “compromise,” it’s the kind of deal the White House might actually go for.
This has become the norm in every major legislative fight since January 2011. Faced with a challenge, Republicans won’t compromise or consider possible concessions; they’ll instead reach for the nearest hostage and start making threats. The nation shifts from one crisis to the next, not because we have to, but because Republicans have made it their m.o. In the last Congress, Republicans created a debt-ceiling crisis and three separate shutdown threats. In this Congress, we’re only nine months in and we’re already facing a shutdown crisis this month and a new debt-ceiling crisis next month.
In each instance, the GOP approach is the same: so long as our demands are met, and we don’t have to compromise, we won’t have to hurt anyone on purpose.
So before the Beltway gets too bent out of shape over Obama using the word “extort” in a speech, I have a question: can anyone think of a more apt description of what’s tragically become the new status quo in Washington?