Hostage to Metaphors

by Ramesh Ponnuru

The reason some liberals have started referring to tea partiers and Republicans as “terrorists” is that even more of them have for weeks been referring to conservatives as “hostage takers.” Once you have decided that someone or some group has taken a hostage to achieve a political objective—and most of the people who speak this way seem to be quite serious about the analogy—using the “terrorist” label is a small step.

But this analogy does not make any sense. I don’t see how anyone can defend it with any logical consistency. (Which makes it all the more baffling that a few conservatives, notably Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, have adopted the analogy themselves and presented themselves as hostage-takers.)

A few points deserve mentioning before moving to consideration of the aptness of this analogy.

First, it should be noted that the accusation cannot logically apply to those people who believed that hitting the debt limit would be (either wholly or on balance) a good thing for the country. The more hard-core a tea partier one is, that is, the less the accusation fits. It makes sense only as an accusation against those conservatives who believed that hitting the debt limit would be a very bad thing and that the limit should be raised, but also believed that its raising should be accompanied by spending cuts: people like House majority leader Eric Cantor, or the editors of National Review (including me). The claim is that we were willing to threaten serious damage to the economy to get our way.

Note second that liberals, in making this analogy, are not saying that we wanted the economy to be hurt (although some liberals have made this claim in other contexts). The hostage-taker generally does not want to shoot the hostage. He wants his demands met.

Third, we should keep distinct the related question of whether there should be a debt limit at all. The recent deal is the most spending restraint that bargaining over a debt-limit increase has ever achieved, and it does not seem to amount to enough to justify the economic risk that no deal would be reached in time. So I think the limit should probably be abolished. But that is a separate question from what it is morally permissible for a legislator to do given that we have a debt limit; and what is wise to do is still another question.

With all that out of the way, on to the main question. One obvious problem with the analogy is that it equates an act with a failure to act: merely letting the government hit the debt limit is akin to shooting the hostage. Actually, the problem is worse than that because the hostage-shooting is a collective inaction. Merely not voting to increase the debt limit isn’t equivalent: Liberals may allow that Senator Obama was wrong to vote against raising the debt ceiling, but they don’t call him a hostage-taker for it.

Nor can it be the case that a legislator has to support a “clean” debt-limit increase in order to avoid being a hostage-taker. In the first place, to demand that an increase have no conditions attached—the initial position of the Obama administration—is to set a condition. Ditto for demanding that a debt-limit increase be tied to tax increase or that it be long-term. (These were subsequent Obama positions.) Almost everyone in the debate was willing to see the government hit the debt limit under certain conditions. In the end, more congressional Democrats than Republicans voted against the bill that finally raised the limit.

So I think the only possible valid argument for condemning those of us who sought spending cuts along with the debt-limit increase would have to go something like this: We once had a norm that Congress would raise the debt ceiling without attaching conditions. Breaking that norm introduces a new level of instability into the political system, and the offense of hostage taking consists of this risky departure from the norm.

The trouble with this argument is that it is not clear that we had any such norm before this year’s debate. The previous two times a Republican House (and at the time Senate) voted to increase the debt limit during a Democratic presidency, it was conditioned by larger deals. In 1997, for example, Republicans attached a capital-gains tax cut to a debt-limit increase.

All in all, I see no reason to conclude that the Republican position during this debt-ceiling debate—that any increase should be tied to spending cuts—was unwise; still less that it was improper.

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