David Weigel at Slate keeps waiting for the sky to fall. He argues that just because the shutdown didn’t end the world the Republicans shouldn’t conclude the President is shooting blanks. Sooner or later a live round will chamber — just wait for a failure to up the debt limit — and every conservative will lose his seat in 2014.
Their faith this will happen is strong. The ‘reality based’ liberal community know the real danger comes from any government hibernation and pityingly regards the deluded conservative “base”, who perversely think unrestrained spending will instead cause “some future, Greece-style collapse. That feels more real to them than these spending and shutdown crises that can be easily blamed on President Obama, parlor tricks meant to make Republicans surrender.”
While both sides remain gripped by a sense of clear and present danger, albeit from reciprocal points of the compass, there’s no denying the last week has been something of a news cycle letdown. There was no earth-shaking ka-boom. No comets emblazoned the sky. If Greece has not yet collapsed, perhaps because it already has, the Federal Government must be given time to demonstrate its existential centrality to people’s lives. So far a government shutdown seems curiously similar in its essentials to one with all the money it can spend.
How little difference available money makes was emphasized by the utter failure of the Obamacare website launch, which proved the public often got exactly nothing after the bureaucrats spent a billion dollars getting everything they asked for.
And that leads many — wrongly, incorrectly we are told — to doubt the president’s warning that a failure by Congress to raise the debt limit would trigger “chaos”. Certainly an Obama refusal to negotiate with Congress unless it first agreed to fund disputed programs and raise the borrowing limit meant he could run the risk of “chaos”, doesn’t it?
The role of threats was illustrated by the confrontation between Kasper Gutman and Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon. In that classic novel, Gutman needed Spade to tell him where the jeweled bird was. Gutman needed Spade and Spade knew it. So how was Gutman going to coerce Spade into giving it up?
Sam Spade: If you kill me, how are you going get the bird? And if I know you can’t afford to kill me, how are you going to scare me into giving it to you?
Kasper Gutman: Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill.
Sam Spade: Yes, that’s… That’s true. But, there’re none of them any good unless the threat of death is behind them. You see what I mean? If you start something, I’ll make it a matter of your having to kill me or call it off.
Kasper Gutman: That’s an attitude, sir, that calls for the most delicate judgment on both sides. Because, as you know, sir, in the heat of action men are likely to forget where their best interests lie and let their emotions carry them away.
Sam Spade: Then the trick from my angle is to make my play strong enough to tie you up, but not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment.
Kasper Gutman: By gad, sir, you are a character.
In these sparse, brilliant lines, Hammett describes how the asymmetry of desire between Gutman and Spade settles the issue. Gutman was obsessed with the Maltese Falcon (“the stuff that dreams are made of”) but on the other hand Spade was even more unreasonably attached to the idea of his unyielding self.
He would not give in and would make a point of not giving in.
Gutman understood — indeed believed — that because Spade valued his self-esteem more than his own life, more in fact, than Gutman valued the Falcon that Spade held the higher card.
Going into the shutdown Obama made his play without putting the “threat of death” — political death — behind his pitch to the Republicans. The day after the shutdown should have been attended by the earth-shattering kaboom. But it didn’t happen. And that weakened Obama’s position. Each day the sky doesn’t fall; each hour that chaos delays its predicted arrival must embolden his rivals even more.
Nor is the clock neutral in this confrontation. Missing deadlines hurts the incumbent than the party out of power. Obama cannot relish his exclusion from the levers of prestige and power he was accustomed to pull. For example, not being able to attend summits in Asia nor any forthcoming foreign event while the crisis lasts pinches Obama more than Boehner. After all Boehner’s not even invited to those fetes but Obama is.
This situation can potentially be resolved in only one of two ways. The President must break the impasse either by producing an earth shaking kaboom or quietly putting the political gat away and making real concessions to the conservative wing of the Republican party. In other words he can offer the conservatives a deal the way the Gutman offered Spade money if he produced the Falcon.
But talking tough without a plan for carrying it through will not yield much. The point was again memorably made by Hammett in describing Spade’s treatment of Wilmer Cook.
Wilmer Cook: Keep on riding me and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.
Sam Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.
Wilmer was “cheap” because he wouldn’t do anything without Gutman’s OK; and Spade already knew what Gutman wouldn’t do. So Obama’s new round of threats are cheap unless he’s willing to really inflict inconvenience on the American people. And once he makes that play he’s bet the farm, a prospect which must give him pause. Besides,the public may have realized it’s not a choice between anarchy and competent government but a choice between the chaos predicted by Obama and the chaos that is Obama.
As Victor Davis Hanson pointed out the worse an administration’s governance is, the less people worry about their threats to withhold it. The Obama administration can be described in terms of the bad restaurant paradox. The worse the food, the less you care about the size of the portions.
The administration’s first mistake was in making threats it could not carry out, unlike Gutman who knew better than get in over his head. It may be making the second mistake, talking tough like Wilmer yet afraid to act. Obama’s only consolation is that Boehner is no Sam Spade. But that’s poor consolation when the only way out of the corner of having to pay for promises he can’t keep is for the president to cut his political throat in front of the public just to show that this time, he means it.
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