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Consortium News / By Robert Parry
The GOP's Long, Sordid History of Shameless Hostage-Taking Democrats have faced Republican strategies of grabbing hostages for decades and have quietly given in, paying ransom again and again. Will that change? December 25, 2011 |
There is a reason why governments refuse to give in to demands from hostage-takers: because otherwise it encourages more hostage-taking. That is an obvious lesson, but it seems it has taken Democrats many years to learn it, as they have faced Republican strategies of grabbing hostages for decades and have quietly given in, paying ransom again and again.
Yet on those rare occasions when Democrats do stand up – such as against House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s government shutdowns in 1995-1996 and against House Speaker John Boehner’s blockage of a payroll tax cut extension this week – the Democrats usually prevail politically.
Still, that hasn’t stopped the Democrats from sliding back into submission the next time the Republicans do it. That’s because standing up to hostage-takers often involves absorbing some short-term pain, like seeing more Americans thrown out of work or watching the U.S. credit rating damaged.
Knowing that the Democrats are hesitant to take those hits, Republicans have held the U.S. economy hostage to extract concessions from President Barack Obama on GOP priorities. Indeed, the practice began immediately after the Republicans won the House majority in 2010.
The Republicans vowed to block extension of long-term unemployment insurance and other recession-related programs unless Obama agreed to continue George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich for two more years. Obama gave in, but he also failed to insist on including a rise in the debt ceiling for government borrowing.
Obama explained that he left the debt ceiling out of the 2010 deal because he didn’t believe anyone would be so reckless as to risk forcing the U.S. government into default. However, in summer 2011, Republicans did just that, holding the debt-ceiling bill hostage unless they got more concessions, which Obama again agreed to grant.
The Republicans understood that by holding the U.S. economy hostage, it’s pretty much a win-win for them. Either they extract more political ransom from Obama or they allow unemployment to stay high in which case they can count on the U.S. news media and the public blaming Obama. That, in turn, improves their chances of winning the White House and Congress in November 2012.
So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise this past week when House Republicans balked at a short-term extension of payroll tax cuts for 160 million working Americans and long-term unemployment insurance for those looking for work. This was just one more opportunity to grab hostages, demand more concessions and make the economy scream.
Yet, by taking his jobs plan to the public – a strategy that Obama has been pursuing since the debt-limit fiasco last summer – has Obama finally been able to make the Republicans pay for their hostage-taking strategy. Faced with national outrage, Speaker Boehner sounded retreat on Thursday, although more hostage-taking can be expected early in the New Year when a longer term extension is negotiated.
The Nixon Legacy
After all, this hardball Republican approach to politics did not begin in 2010. The pattern can be traced back to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign of 1968 when his political team, in essence, took the half-million American soldiers in Vietnam hostage.
According to documents and audio recordings that have surfaced over the intervening decades, it is clear that Nixon’s campaign sabotaged President Lyndon Johnson’s Paris peace talks by getting the South Vietnamese leadership to boycott the negotiations in exchange for Nixon’s promises of a better deal once he was in the White House.
In October 1968, the peace talks were on the verge of ending the conflict which had already claimed more than 30,000 U.S. lives and a million or so Vietnamese. However, Nixon feared that a last-minute settlement of the war would likely give Vice President Hubert Humphrey the boost he needed to win the election. So, Nixon’s operatives made sure that didn’t happen.
Johnson learned of Nixon’s gambit, which the President called “treason” in one phone conversation. Johnson even confronted Nixon over the phone about the sabotage, but Nixon simply denied the accusations, leaving Johnson with the choice of whether to release the evidence before the 1968 election.
Johnson consulted with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford on Nov. 4, 1968. Both advised against going public out of fear that the evidence of Nixon’s treachery might reflect badly on the United States.
“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said in a conference call. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
So, Johnson relented, agreeing to stay silent for the “good of the country,” while Nixon exploited the stalemated peace talks for the edge that ensured his narrow victory.
However, since Nixon’s side had promised South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu a better deal than Johnson was offering, Nixon had little choice but to continue the war – for four more years, with the deaths of 20,000 more U.S. soldiers and a million or so more Vietnamese. [See “The Significance of Nixon’s ‘Treason’.”]
Madman and Watergate
Desperate to show some results from the additional years of war, Nixon also tried out a version of his hostage-taking strategy on the North Vietnamese, devising what was called the “madman” theory of letting Hanoi think that he was crazy enough to use nuclear weapons unless they gave in. In effect, he was taking their whole country hostage.
However, the North Vietnamese called his bluff and ultimately negotiated a peace accord in Paris in 1972, along the lines of what Johnson had hammered out four years earlier. (In 1975, the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies routed Thieu’s South Vietnamese army, with him going into exile in the United States.)
Still, Nixon’s political success in 1968 encouraged him to continue pushing the envelope of what he could get away with, apparently trusting that when push came to shove the Democrats would retreat as Johnson did. Nixon’s political hubris finally undid him in the Watergate political spying scandal.
Yet, despite Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the Republicans were not inclined to change their ways. The imprint of Nixon’s “scorched-earth” brand of politics had been burned deeply into their psyches, evidenced in their harsh rhetoric, their questioning of other people’s patriotism and a readiness to coerce adversaries.
As longtime Democratic congressional aide Spencer Oliver observed years later: “What [the Republicans] learned from Watergate was not ‘don’t do it,’ but ‘cover it up more effectively.’ They have learned that they have to frustrate congressional oversight and press scrutiny in a way that will avoid another major scandal.”
Now, the same pattern has come to dominate the Obama years. The Republicans use whatever means necessary – from endless filibusters of jobs bills to obstruction of vital legislation like the debt-ceiling bill – to achieve their political goals. And the Democrats usually succumb for “the good of the country.”
The question now is whether President Obama and the Democrats have finally internalized the folly of giving in to hostage-takers and will use Election 2012 to punish the GOP for these tactics – or whether they will return to form when the short-term payroll tax cut extension expires in two months and agree to pay another Republican ransom.
[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.