The United States does not negotiate with terrorists. How many times have we all heard that? And the reason is simple, it is called moral hazard. Any reward for hijacking airplanes or taking hostages encourages more of that kind of behavior. Even talking to terrorists lends them a dignity they have not earned.
By that same reasoning, President Barack Obama is absolutely right to take a firm stance with the minority of Republicans who have hijacked the House, shut down the government and may soon be threatening the “full faith and credit” of the United States – and with that, the world economy. Bargaining with a gun to your head is not negotiation.
The simplest way to understand this is a test we all learned in childhood: What if the shoe were on the other foot? Because sooner or later it will be. At some point, the Republicans will retake the White House and the Democrats will control the House of Representatives. How should that president react if a cabal of the most left-wing Democrats in Congress pulled the same stunt and held the country hostage while demanding higher taxes on the rich, unlimited access to taxpayer-funded abortions or an all-out ban on assault weapons?
He or she – that future Republican president – would be right to point out that the U.S. government does not and cannot work that way. There are rules, procedures and elections. It does not matter if the crazies are a minority of left-wing Democrats or, to use Arizona Sen. John McCain’s term, a few “wacko-birds” in the GOP.
If the current impasse plays out in favor of the House tea partiers, however, that is exactly what will happen. If Obama caves to the demands of the zealots in the House, he will set a precedent and show political extremists of all stripes how to get their way without having to go to the trouble and expense of actually winning at the polls.
The House Republicans do not like Obamacare. Fair enough; nothing says they have to. But if they want to undo it, the procedure is clear. They can repeal it the same way it was enacted. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – Obamacare’s proper name – came about because the Democrats were in control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, a situation bestowed on them by the voters. That they have since lost the House does not change what occurred, any more than the fact that Obama was re-elected. If Republicans can win back the Senate and the White House, they can enact their agenda including undoing Obamacare if that is their priority.
(This same thinking applies to liberal complaints about the Supreme Court. In the 40 years between 1968 and 2008, Democrats were president for only 12. Even with Bill Clinton and now Obama, the majority of the justices were appointed by Republicans. Those who do not approve should focus on winning more elections.)
By all accounts, the government shutdown and the far more dangerous threat of defaulting on debt payments are being driven by a group of about 40 members of the House. That they are in this case all on the far right is interesting, but fundamentally irrelevant.
No president of either party – and no majority in the Senate – can accept that, not from the right, the left or any other grouping.
In the end, neither can the voters. Governing by hostage taking is not only undemocratic it flies in the face of a republican form of government.
President Obama should stand firm in the face of such threats. Democracy demands it.