…For Now

It’s all well and good to say you won’t negotiate with a man holding a gun. But at the end of the day, he’s still the one with the gun.

National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Oct. 3, 2013, 4:15 p.m.

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.

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