Soon-to-be former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain has a message for the American political class: “This this this this,” he feverishly wrote. To emphasize his fervid tween passions, one of the most powerful men in Washington garnished this endorsement with no fewer than four “down-pointing backhand” emojis aimed at a quoted tweet from Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell. All this apparently necessary to popularize what has become a rote observation among Democratic partisans, some of whom maintain that the congressional Republicans using their leverage to secure a deal on federal spending are “hostage takers.”
“Pundits keep urging Dems to ‘just negotiate’ with Republicans to prevent a US default,” read the tweet that caught Klain’s eye. “I think rewarding hostage-taking is a terrible idea for other reasons, but even if Dems agreed to pay a ransom… is there any ransom R’s would actually accept??”
In a column, Rampell expands on the metaphor. “Sorting out the country’s fiscal challenges is a worthwhile goal,” she concedes, although it is one that should ideally be pursued through the process of regular order (which both parties long ago abandoned when it comes to the budget). But she contends that “holding the debt limit hostage” in pursuit of that objective will have the opposite of its intended consequence. “Essentially paying off Republicans to not trigger an economic meltdown creates terrible incentives for future negotiations,” Rampell adds. “We wouldn’t expect Democrats to blithely offer up a ransom if Republicans were threatening to blow up the Washington Monument.”
Maybe overextended analogies and colorful language are necessary to get anyone who isn’t steeped in partisan minutia to engage in the otherwise banal process of negotiated cuts to the bloated federal budget. It reprises the ill-considered rhetorical flourishes Obama administration functionaries deployed to discredit Republican tactics in the 44th president’s second term. Then, administration officials likened GOP members to terrorists “with a bomb strapped to their chest.” Obama himself deemed the GOP’s effort to hold one of his nominees, Loretta Lynch, “hostage” illegitimate—an endeavor Sen. Dick Durbin said was the equivalent of forcing this African-American woman to the “back of the bus.” At the time, the White House regularly compared its opponents with “arsonists, anarchists, extortionists, blackmailers,” as one reporter summarized.
This form of spleen ventilation serves few practical purposes, save for effectively misdirecting voters’ attention. In 2013, when the Obama administration appealed to the public’s ids in this way, it was designed to underscore their contention that hiking the debt ceiling as a matter of course was an anti-ideological act. By contrast, the GOP and its convenient rediscovery of frugality in the political wilderness were ensorcelled by abstractions.
Of course, paying for spending—particularly spending in pursuit of ideological goals, like the Democrats’ reconceptualization of the American health-care system—is not divorced from the appropriation and disbursement of those funds. Today, Republicans seek offsets to the trillions of taxpayer dollars devoted to both pandemic relief and the various alterations to the social compact Democrats pursued in its wake. Seeking offsets to wild spending sprees isn’t purely ideological. It’s arguably practical.
Moreover, it seems that it is only ever Republicans who are accused of wielding like a weapon the leverage conferred to them by voters. When Democrats deploy their power similarly, it’s just politics. Indeed, it’s smart politics.
“Democrats perfect the art of delay” when they make the process of confirming Donald Trump’s nominees to the Cabinet and judiciary as “painful” as possible. When the minority party in the House managed to derail anodyne legislation that funds a veterans’ health care and America’s intelligence gathering programs, they had dealt the GOP an “embarrassing” blow. What they had not done was weaken the nation’s security and throw its warfighters under the bus only to express frustrations with how the majority party had not investigated Russian meddling in the 2016 election to the Democrats’ satisfaction. Not according to the press, at least.
Democrats put the Pentagon’s budget on hold to block border-security funding and buried legislation aimed at protecting infants that survive late-term abortions. They used their minority privileges to scuttle Sen. Tim Scott’s sensible police-reform bill and to twice prevent the GOP from passing Covid-relief legislation, and only to preserve what Democrats believe should be their monopoly on those initiatives. All this was highly ideological, sometimes parochial, and always self-serving. What it was not was the functional equivalent of a terrorist attack on the United States.
There’s nothing illegitimate about the exercise of political power derived from the consent of the governed, and playing high-stakes games of chicken in Congress is anything but rare. As a rhetorical exercise, describing these mundanities as “hostage-taking” is the polemical equivalent of revving the engine while the transmission is in neutral. It convinces no persuadable observer because persuasion is not the point. It’s a display for the benefit of like minds. But it is not without its costs. Cheapening the discourse and poisoning the political well is no small price to pay just to indulge your ego.