As the government shut down this week, President Obama appeared eager to take the advice of allies who were urging him to stand firm and refuse absolutely to negotiate over his signature program, health care. In remarks in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, he echoed the Democrats' favorite meme: The House Republicans who forced the shutdown by trying to delay or defund Obamacare were nothing more than political terrorists, and he shouldn't bargain with them as a matter of principle. The Republicans, the president said, "don't get to hold the entire government hostage." Or as White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer put it on CNN, Obama is not going to negotiate "with people with a bomb strapped to their chest."
In fact, those are just the sort of people you do negotiate with. You don't really have any choice, because they're not responding to reason and because precious lives are at stake—or, in this case, the viability of the entire U.S. economy. The real danger of the standoff, after all, has not been the shutdown alone, painful though it's been for the more than 800,000 government workers already furloughed. The bigger risk was always that there would be so little resolution of the underlying issues that, by the time the debt-ceiling deadline arrives in a couple of weeks, the country risks an economic disaster by defaulting on its debts.
Obama, in a meeting with Republican leaders Wednesday, indicated he wanted both the shutdown and debt-limit issues resolved at once and that he wouldn't negotiate on either. That won't work. Just as authorities have learned to do in real hostage situations, a lot of humoring of the crazies is in order. True, Obama must be inspired to hold fast on Obamacare more than on any past spending issue; he cannot surrender on any part of his biggest domestic achievement. And as the president has pointed out many times, Congress and, implicitly, the 2012 electorate have already approved Obamacare, which the Supreme Court declared constitutional.
But if the administration's approach is to cast the House GOP members as ideological jihadists, then perhaps it should adopt the same policy it applies to real hostage-takers: Be nice, and make a good show of listening to them. Even when it comes to terrorists, despite a supposed policy of never negotiating, the government usually finds a way to bargain through back channels.
That is what has been done secretly in hostage negotiations going back to the Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979—which ended, recall, with the dramatic release of Americans on the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration, following many months of secret outreach. In the 2000s, the United States and Great Britain opened negotiations with Libya over the culprits behind the Pan Am 103 bombings and Muammar el-Qaddafi's nuclear-weapons program. Back then, too, there was a big difference between the "official" story of what the government was doing and what it was actually doing. As the Bush administration liked to tell it, Qaddafi was scared straight by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and promptly gave up his life's work as an international terrorist, renouncing both his weapons of mass destruction and his terrorist tactics. What really happened, as corroborated by multiple sources, is that Qaddafi cut a deal in 2003 only after the British and Americans quietly assured him that President Bush would settle for "policy change"—that is, giving up his nukes—rather than regime change. The Libyan dictator may have been scared, but he needed a concession too. One of the first agenda items for the U.S. as it tries to convene talks with the Taliban is a swap of some kind for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was taken hostage in 2009.
The key for the Obama administration will be to separate the wavering and more rational ideologues in the House from the true wing nuts—the ones from Bachmann-land. The president needs to follow the advice his badly missed former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, would no doubt give him: Reach out one by one, find the reasonable doubters who are less than certain of the sanctity of the jihad, and help them find a way out of the box they're in.
Even among the Republican jihadists, there are some for whom certain inducements to compromise—such as a repeal of the medical-device tax—can be found. One idea that surfaced this week was to try to get the Republicans to combine the separate votes on the continuing resolution on funding and the debt limit into one, and in response give them something back. Only that will encourage Speaker John Boehner to break, at long last, with the tea-party gang that has held him personally hostage since the election of 2010. Some House Republicans are already betraying cracks in the caucus by seeking to hold piecemeal votes on spending, especially on veterans' affairs.
There is still room for talk. It will avail Obama little to simply lament the unreasonableness of the far-right "faction" of House Republicans, or to appeal to their sense of political survival in the face of national polls showing they will be disproportionately blamed. Many of them just don't care about governing. Their districts are often far more safely Republican than in the past, so they don't have to worry about retribution from voters. As they see it, they are on a mission from God.
And so a deal will have to be struck with the others—the ones who aren't yet speaking in Parseltongue. And to accomplish that, something will have to change hands.