by Doctor Science
At this point, all Democrats and a sprinkling of Republicans call the House GOP's threat to not raise the debt ceiling "hostage-taking" or indeed "economic terrorism". When Obama absolutely refuses to negotiate about the debt ceiling, then, we think "that's right, we don't negotiate with terrorists" and nod firmly.
Breaching the debt ceiling would mean defaulting on the US's obligations. It's not about refusing to run up more debt, it's about refusing to pay debts we're already run up. The results would likely be catastrophic, for the US and for the rest of the world.
Obama *did* negotiate with Republicans to avert a 2011 debt ceiling breach, but it was really ugly. He seems to have hoped that it was a one-time thing, but Republicans clearly didn't feel that way.:
[Senator (R-KY) Mitch] McConnell said he could imagine doing this again.Now the Republicans have taken the same hostage, again -- as could have been predicted by anyone who'd ever heard of Danegeld.
“I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting,” he said. “Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming.”
The thing is, though we may say "don't negotiate with terrorists", that's complete (and dangerous) bull. If someone takes hostages, *of course* you talk with them. You negotiate because calming the situation and getting the hostages out alive is far more important than "standing firm".
John Avalon of The Daily Beast talked to Christopher Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, about the current crisis:
"It actually reminds me of a prison siege ... The opposition isn’t particularly organized. The smart move is to pick among the leadership on the other side who is the most reasonable. Then you empower them by talking with them and granting some sort of small concession. And they suddenly gain a lot of influence on their side.”Basically, Voss' advice involves *respecting* the Tea Party's desire "not to be disrespected", that that desire is a very strong motivator for people who are smarting from defeat.
He’s looking to the Obama White House to help start the reset: “I would ask them to start saying, ‘I understand that the people on the other side of the table have the best interests of the American people at heart.’ Simply recognize that. Everybody wants to do what’s best for the American public. Those sorts of statements repeated on a regular basis, it’s the start of dialogue. It’s not concession; it’s the beginning of dialogue.”
Voss has seen worse situations defused. “I’ve seen people that were taken hostage in kidnapping situations where the kidnappers hated the person and what they stood for,” he says. “And when the person facing them showed them unrelenting respect and unrelenting courtesy and was completely relentless in it, eventually they began to reciprocate with respect. So if you decide that you can stand to have a chunk taken out of your hide, the scars of disrespect, a few times by being the first one to show respect, it will become contagious. It will work.”
So what advice would the professional hostage negotiator give Speaker John Boehner, who has been frequently accused of being held hostage by 40 or so House radicals? “Find a way to declare victory and go home. Start to list the wins that you actually had. Start to recalibrate to where you want to be in the next sequence of moves instead of trying to go the whole distance in one phase.”
And what would Voss tell the White House? “Start using messaging that ‘we’re after what’s in the best interests of the American people.’ You’re challenging other people to engage and that’s a dialogue. At the same time, if they fail to do so, then they’re the ones who look unreasonable. And you have at that point time to reset the game.” [bolds mine]
You can hear how this kind of negotiation works in this raw footage of a 911 call at a school shooting in Decatur, GA, this August:
Antoinette Tuff is the school bookkeeper, but she was also one of three staff members who were trained to deal with hostile situations like this one. That's one reason she knew what to do and could keep so (apparently) calm under life-or-death stress. But she also, clearly, is a person of literally heroic compassion, who succeeded by showing respect and caring toward a dangerous, mentally-ill stranger who'd fallen off the end of his rope.
I don't know if a relentless emphasis by Obama on "I understand that the people on the other side of the table have the best interests of the American people at heart" will be enough to move the less-radical Republicans toward releasing the hostages. Among other things, there's the weekend's must-read from the NY Times, showing that the current Congressional crisis was essentially engineered by billionaire David Koch, Michael A. Needham of Heritage Action and former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, among others. But I bet professional negotiators have faced situations when the hostage-takers have lots of outside support; I wonder what they would suggest?