When is a Hostage Not a Hostage?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 11 2013 5:34 PM

When is a Hostage Not a Hostage?

National Review's Charles Cooke and Ramesh Ponnuru engage in a short dialogue about Democrats and the debt limit, and found their latest complaints to be laughable. "So: It’s ok if Republicans pass a debt-ceiling increase, or pass a debt-ceiling increase with spending cuts and tax increases," writes Ponnuru, "but it’s “hostage-taking” (they use the metaphor) to pass it with spending cuts and no tax increases."

Well, yes. Until 2011, Congress had never passed a debt limit increase with a corresponding package of mandatory spending cuts. Republicans demanded this, and refused to raise the debt limit without it. Their rationale: It wasn't hostage-taking, because if the cuts weren't made then, the cuts would be made later. "If we do not solve our debt problem now," argued Rep. Patrick McHenry, in a typical statement from the time, "raising the debt ceiling will no longer be an option in the future – a reality that faces nations like Greece and Portugal." (Those countries don't have debt limits that need to be raised legislatively, but that's neither here nor there.)

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That was the argument, but it sounded a lot like hostage-taking. After all, if you nab some 12-year old scion of a millionaire, and threaten to do something bad to them unless you get $1 million, you're taking a hostage. The fact that the 12-year old will eventually age and die of natural causes doesn't mean you're not forcing somebody's hand. But Republicans realize that they're blamed when they demand these cuts, so they're trying to shift the Overton Window and claim that whiny Democrats are just pitching a fit. The reframing is not working so far.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.