Here's how to negotiate, GOP-style: Begin by making outrageous demands. Bully your opponents into giving you almost all of what you want. Rather than accept the deal, add a host of radical new demands. Observe casually that you wouldn't want anything bad to happen to the hostage you've taken -- the nation's well-being. To the extent possible, look and sound like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."
This strategy has worked so well for Republicans that it's no surprise they're using it again, this time in the unnecessary fight over what should be a routine increase in the debt ceiling. This time, however, something different is happening: President Obama seems to be channeling Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver." At a news conference last Wednesday, Obama's response to the GOP was, essentially, "You talkin' to me?"
Obama's in-your-face attitude seems to have thrown Republicans off their stride. They thought all they had to do was convince everyone they were crazy enough to force an unthinkable default on the nation's financial obligations. Now they have to wonder if Obama is crazy enough to let them.
He probably isn't. But the White House has kept up the pressure, asserting that the real deadline for action by Congress to avoid a default isn't Aug. 2, as the Treasury Department said, but July 22; it takes time to write the needed legislation, officials explained. Tick, tick, tick
Obama's pushing and poking are aimed at Republicans who control the House, and what he wants them to "just do" is abandon the uncompromising position that any debt-ceiling deal has to include big, painful budget cuts but not a single cent of new tax revenue.
The president demands that Congress also eliminate "tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners." Without these modest increases in revenue, he says, the government will have to cut funding for medical research, food inspection and the National Weather Service. Also, presumably, whatever federal support goes to puppies and apple pie.
In truth, some non-millionaires who never fly on corporate jets would also lose tax breaks under the president's proposal. And it's hard to believe that the first thing the government would do, if Congress provides no new revenue, is stop testing ground beef for bacteria. But Obama is right that the cuts would be Draconian -- and he's right to insist that House Republicans face reality.
My view, for what it's worth, is that now is the wrong time for spending cuts or tax increases -- that it's ridiculous to do anything that might slow the lumbering economic recovery, even marginally. But if there have to be cuts, then Republicans must be forced to move off the no-new-revenue line they have drawn in the sand.
Every independent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel that has looked at the deficit problem has reached the same conclusion: The gap between spending and revenue is much too big to be closed by budget cuts alone. With fervent conviction but zero evidence, tea party Republicans believe otherwise -- and Establishment Republicans, who know better, are afraid to contradict them.
The stakes are perilously high, but Obama does have a doomsday option: If all else fails, he can assert that a section of the 14th Amendment -- "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law shall not be questioned" -- makes the debt limit unconstitutional and instructs him to take any measures necessary to avoid default.
Maybe that's why, in this stare down, the president doesn't seem inclined to blink.