Hostage Negotiations, the Madman Theory, and the Debt Ceiling.

The first real test of the new Republican House majority will be coming around February, when Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling to allow the Treasury to continue borrowing money to pay for all the things government does. Republicans are now figuring out what they want to demand in exchange for going along, and both sides are trying to determine just how this is going to play out politically. One thing we can anticipate is that Republicans will get very indignant when Democrats charge that this is a "hostage" situation.

But it will be. The essence of a hostage situation is that the hostage taker says, "Give me what I want, or I will do terrible harm to this thing you care about." The threat is believable only if the hostage taker is thought to be willing to actually do that harm. Is it believable in this case?

Well, in this case, the thing being held hostage is both the U.S economy and the world economy. The potential is that if the Republicans don't budge on not raising the debt ceiling (as many of their Tea Party supporters want), and Democrats don't give in to their demands, then the U.S. government defaults on its debts, and the result is a worldwide financial panic. I'm not an international economist, so I can't say if that would really happen, and if so how long it would take, but it seems to be a possibility that people who know about these things take seriously.

Again, the essence of the hostage situation is that this violence -- killing the hostage, initiating a global financial panic -- is something the hostage taker is willing to do. Are congressional Republicans willing to do it? Maybe. Or maybe some of them are, while others aren't. That's what we saw when we bailed out Wall Street -- some Republicans were willing to let the banking system collapse, while others, particularly George W. Bush, weren't.

On the other hand, the hostage taker can successfully win the negotiation even if he's not willing to kill the hostage, so long as he can convince the hostage's anguished parents that he is willing. Republicans might do their own version of Richard Nixon's "madman theory," in which you get your opponent to negotiate by convincing him that you're crazy enough to do anything, including initiating nuclear war. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell might start shoving Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann, and some other Tea Party crazies in front of the cameras, then quietly go to the White House and say, "We don't want to blow up the world, but we can't control these nuts -- you'd better give us those draconian social service cuts."

It just might work.

-- Paul Waldman

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