The Hostages Next Time

I remember last December sitting in a Berlin hotel room on a bitterly cold night and reading about the details of the agreement reached on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Unlike a lot of progressives, including some colleagues of mine, I thought at the time that President Obama had made an excellent deal. Given the weak economy, full extension of the Bush tax cuts for two years was defensible public policy on the merits. And a chunk of bonus stimulus was thrown in for good measure. Refusing to cut a deal and letting all tax cuts expire would have been “tough” and would have made ideological progressives feel better about the president, but on the policy merits it didn’t make real sense.

Still, the president’s description of his own thinking was disturbing. He complained that Republicans had held the national economy hostage to their extreme demands. And he decided, in essence, that he was going to give in to the hostage-taking.

This raised a question in my mind not so much about that deal as about the next hostage go-round. And what we saw this weekend was another hostage scenario. And we saw an administration that didn’t really do anything in the intervening months between that frigid evening and yesterday’s torrid heat to solve their hostage problem. So now I’m of course left to wonder “what’s next?” Part of this deal is a bipartisan, bicameral commission that’s supposed to recommend a package of deficit reduction to get a fast-track vote in Congress. Congress is free not to agree to the package, but if they don’t agree, that will “trigger” some hefty automatic spending cuts. The trigger cuts are, according to the White House, to “provide a strong incentive for both sides to come to the table.” Here’s their rationale for that:

If the fiscal committee took no action, the deal would automatically add nearly $500 billion in defense cuts on top of cuts already made, and, at the same time, it would cut critical programs like infrastructure or education. That outcome would be unacceptable to many Republicans and Democrats alike – creating pressure for a bipartisan agreement without requiring the threat of a default with unthinkable consequences for our economy.

To me, this just sounds like the next hostage fight. Full expiration of the Bush tax cuts was unacceptable to many Republicans and Democrats alike. So the GOP played its hand aggressively, and Democrats backed down. Failure to raise the debt ceiling was unacceptable to many Republicans and Democrats alike. So the GOP played its hand aggressive, and Democrats backed down. If pulling the sequestration trigger is unacceptable to many Republicans and Democrats alike, then why won’t Republicans simply play the same game of bluff and hardball that’s worked for them in the past? What new trick is up Obama’s sleeve to change the basic hostage dynamic? I don’t think it’s inconceivable that the administration could answer that question in a plausible way, but I don’t think anything they put out yesterday clearly offered such an answer.