We Negotiate With Terrorists, So Why Not With the GOP?

Obama may be able to wait out the House Republicans on the shutdown, but not on the debt ceiling.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 01: U.S. President Barack Obama walks back to the Oval Office after delivering remarks about the launch of the Affordable Care Act's health insurance marketplaces and the first federal government shutdown in 17 years in the Rose Garden of the White House October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. House Republicans and Senate Democrats continue to volley legislation back and forth as they battle over a budget to keep the government running and delaying or defunding 'Obamacare.'
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Oct. 1, 2013, 11:44 a.m.

As the shut­down drags on, the most pop­u­lar meme among Demo­crats is to por­tray the House Re­pub­lic­ans as polit­ic­al ter­ror­ists with whom one can­not bar­gain as a mat­ter of prin­ciple. Pres­id­ent Obama him­self drove home the harsh ana­logy in re­marks in the Rose Garden on Tues­day that re­vealed his ap­par­ent con­tempt for his op­pon­ents and ap­peared to slam the door on fur­ther talks. The Re­pub­lic­ans, the pres­id­ent said, were de­mand­ing “ransom just for do­ing their jobs” and “don’t get to hold the en­tire gov­ern­ment host­age.” As White House ad­visor Dan Pfeif­fer put it on CNN, Obama is not go­ing to ne­go­ti­ate “with people with a bomb strapped to their chest.”

But if the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach is to cast the House GOP mem­bers as ji­hadists wield­ing bal­lots in­stead of bul­lets, then per­haps it should ad­opt the same policy it ap­plies to real ter­ror­ists: Don’t ne­go­ti­ate at all in pub­lic, but mean­while search for every back chan­nel you can. Even among Re­pub­lic­an ji­hadists, there are in­ter­locutors to be found and not un­reas­on­able in­duce­ments — like a re­peal of the med­ic­al-device tax — to of­fer up.

The real danger of the cur­rent stan­doff, after all, is not how long the shut­down ex­tends over the GOP’s des­per­ate and fu­tile ef­fort to halt or slow the im­ple­ment­a­tion of Obama­care, pain­ful though this is for the nearly 800,000 gov­ern­ment work­ers already fur­loughed. The shut­down is likely to be re­solved soon­er rather than later. The risk is that there will be so little res­ol­u­tion of the un­der­ly­ing is­sues that by the time the more im­port­ant debt-lim­it is­sue comes around in a couple of weeks, the U.S. risks an eco­nom­ic dis­aster by de­fault­ing on its debt.

So between now and then, the ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to quietly reach out to waver­ing House Re­pub­lic­ans, just as it of­ten cov­ertly does with ac­tu­al ter­ror­ists.

The gov­ern­ment’s pu­tat­ive policy of not ne­go­ti­at­ing with ter­ror­ists is, in truth, a pre­tend policy. As we know from his­tory, when ter­ror­ists hold many pre­cious lives in their hands — in this case, the vi­ab­il­ity of the en­tire U.S. eco­nomy — you do find ways of quietly ne­go­ti­at­ing, some­times de­ploy­ing out-of-the-box in­duce­ments. 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 the host­ages on the day of Ron­ald Re­agan’s in­aug­ur­a­tion, fol­low­ing many months of talks through secret chan­nels.

It’s also what happened in the 2000s, when the U.S. and Bri­tain opened up ne­go­ti­ations with Libya over the cul­prits be­hind the Pan Am 103 bomb­ings and the Qad­dafi re­gime’s nuc­le­ar weapons. 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, Liby­an dic­tat­or Muam­mar 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 pro­gram and his ter­ror 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. Qad­dafi may have been scared, but he needed a con­ces­sion too.

Pres­id­ent Obama is show­ing some con­fid­ence that he can simply wait out the Re­pub­lic­ans on the shut­down. And per­haps he can: already some of the more reas­on­able House GOP mem­bers are say­ing privately that they plan to give the tea party a day or two of tri­umph­al rhet­or­ic, and then they ex­pect Speak­er John Boehner to call a vote on a “clean” con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion that will fund the gov­ern­ment without ty­ing in Obama­care. “If the GOP lead­er­ship brings a clean CR [con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to fund the gov­ern­ment] to the floor it will get a ma­jor­ity of the ma­jor­ity — maybe not today, but to­mor­row or Thursday,” says Rich Ga­len, a former ad­visor to Newt Gin­grich when the lat­ter, as speak­er, forced the pre­vi­ous shut­down 17 years ago.

But in the end, Obama is prob­ably go­ing to have to give the waver­ing Re­pub­lic­ans something too, no mat­ter how small, in or­der to avoid debt-lim­it Armaged­don by Oct. 17. That’s when, ac­cord­ing to Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jac­ob Lew, Con­gress must au­thor­ize more bor­row­ing if the gov­ern­ment is to pay its bills and not de­fault on U.S. Treas­ury bonds, roil­ing glob­al mar­kets. To avoid this out­come, Obama’s best bet may be to fol­low the ad­vice that his badly missed former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, knew well — reach out one by one, find the reas­on­able doubters who are less than cer­tain of the sanc­tity of the ji­had, and help to find them a way out of the box they’re all in.

Obama is right when he says, with pride, that the is­sue of Obama­care has been voted on already by the Con­gress and the elect­or­ate in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, as well as by the Su­preme Court.  But it will avail him noth­ing to in­veigh against the un­reas­on­able­ness of the 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 simply don’t care about the na­tion­al polls, or about the na­tion­al fate of the Re­pub­lic­an Party. As my col­leagues Ron Brown­stein and Charlie Cook write, many House dis­tricts are far more safely “red” or “Re­pub­lic­an” than in the past.

Something will have to change hands.

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