The Hostage-Taking Metaphor Paints Democrats As Weak

08/04/2011 09:50 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011
  • Jonathan Weiler Director of Undergraduate Studies in Global Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

Last December, when Obama and the Democrats acceded to Republican demands to extend all of the Bush tax cuts for two years in exchange for other concessions, the president described the Republicans as engaging in "hostage-taking." President Obama said:

"I've said before that I felt that the middle class tax cuts were being held hostage to the high end tax cuts. I think it's tempting not to negotiate with the hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy...In this case, the hostage was the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed."

Over the past several months, the hostage metaphor has become a common part of political parlance in America, typically invoked by Democrats to describe Republican behavior in the debt-ceiling fight. And most recently, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell mused over the efficacy of having taken hostages in order to get a debt ceiling deal on terms highly favorable to Republicans and the prospects of repeating that approach in subsequent budget fights.

I am not going to re-hash here all of the problems with the precedent set by the December deal and the now familiar pattern whereby the GOP, despite not holding the presidency or the Senate, seems to be able to dictate the key terms of political debate and policy. But I would say this: Democrats and their allies need to stop using the hostage-taking metaphor.

The intent behind invoking the metaphor is to paint the Republicans as crazy extremists who cannot be trusted to govern the country responsibly while portraying Obama as he most wants the American people to see him -- as the most (or only) reasonable and responsible adult in the room. And it's true that polling subsequent to the recently concluded budget fight has left Speaker Boehner and the Republican leadership deeply unpopular. But in 2012, facing what will surely still be a sagging economy, the president and his party are going to face uphill electoral battles regardless. And the hostage metaphor is likely to do more harm than good. Why? Because a key premise of the metaphor is that Democrats are weak and, indeed, powerless. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi acknowledged today that her party misread the support Speaker Boehner had for the plan that just passed Congress. What's noteworthy about Pelosi's candor is that, contrary to some of the president's strongest defenders, it's not obviously the case that the Democrats got the very best deal they could in the face of GOP intransigence. Pelosi certainly doesn't think that's true and, in fact, her account suggests that Democrats badly overestimated the hand Boehner was holding. In other words, Democrats were not as powerless as the hostage metaphor would suggest, making its invocation so much excuse-making.

When Americans go to the polls next year, they are both going to ask themselves which party is most responsible for the mess we're in and which will have the fortitude and clarity to get us out of it. The Democrats' message to the country, especially since last December has been that, even though they hold the presidency and the Senate, they are not responsible for our sagging national fortunes because they are too weak. McConnell, who has proved quite savvy as Senate minority leader was likely happy to embrace the hostage imagery because he knows that it means, among other things, that the Republicans think they can get their way by playing hardball.

When Obama used the metaphor last December he at least remembered to emphasize that the hostage in question was the American people. Divorced from that context, the metaphor is even less usefully evocative. If the hostage is something abstract like the debt ceiling, it's not at all clear that Americans are convinced that such "hostage-taking" amounts to an act of cruelty, or terrorism, or whatever else it is that Democrats are trying to evoke. But it is arguably the case that using the phrase is just so much whining about how, despite holding two branches of government, the Democrats are too weak to get anything done. Why they think that underlying message is going to help them next year is beyond me. Call the Republicans extremists. Remind everyone that they have nothing but antipathy for ordinary Americans. Point out repeatedly what unrepentant hypocrites they are about government spending and fiscal prudence. But Democrats need to stop saying, in effect, "the other guys are strong and we're weak." It's lame and whiny and no way for a party to brand itself.