Is the Hostage Metaphor Accurate?

Lots of Democrats have referred to what just happened with the budget as a hostage situation (I did so myself). I'm sure Republicans find this deeply offensive, since in their minds, they're just trying to put the nation's fiscal house in order. And cut social programs, and kill the Affordable Care Act, and keep the EPA from doing anything about global warming, and let women who want contraception know that they're dirty sluts ... but mostly, they just want to responsibly cut spending.

So is the hostage metaphor accurate? Not exactly, when it comes to Phase I of the great budget battle of 2011-2012, the one we just completed. In the metaphor, Republicans are the hostage-takers, the constituencies and programs hurt by budget cuts are the hostages, and Democrats are the anguished parents. This metaphor seems reasonable, but it falls short when you think about the role different parties are actually playing. In a hostage situation, the hostage-takers want something having nothing to do with the hostage -- money, or perhaps the release of their comrades. The hostage is a means to acquire that end. But in the case of the budget, hurting the hostage is the very thing the Republicans want. So the negotiation would go something like, "Release my daughter!" "How about if I kill her?" "Don't kill her!" "Maybe I'll just cut off her arm." "OK, I can live with that."

But it works much better with the debt-ceiling debate, which is Phase II of the great budget battle (Phase III is the 2012 budget, and Phase IV is the 2013 budget, which will be debated in the fall of 2012, during the presidential campaign). According to the Treasury Department, we'll hit the debt ceiling in May, so that phase starts now. In this case, the hostage is the American economy, and perhaps the global economy. Republicans are threatening to destroy them if they don't get more of what they want, the spending cuts and ideological riders. Those things are no longer the hostage; they're the price the hostage-takers must be paid. It's not that they actively want to hurt the hostage (the economy); it's just that they're willing to do so in order to obtain their price.

And does anyone doubt the credibility of the threat? The problem is that Republicans know that Democrats really, really don't want the hostage to be harmed, and Democrats know that enough Republicans are crazy enough to follow through and let the country default. The only way the bargaining positions can be equalized is if the political cost to the Republicans of a default becomes so large and clear that their willingness to follow through on their threat drops dramatically. Which is possible, but it's going to take some smart and aggressive message management on the part of the White House, not to mention tough negotiating, things they haven't show too much of lately.