A suicide bomber walks into a bar. He shouts at the bartender, "Gimme the money, or I blow this place to bits!" The worried bartender hands him a wad of cash, and the bomber departs.
The next day, the suicide bomber returns to the same bar. He shouts at the bartender, "Gimme the money, or I blow this place to bits!"
"Are you nuts?" answers the bartender. "If I give you money every day, I'll go out of business. Plus, you're scaring away the customers."
"I tell you what," replies the bomber, "Gimme the money, and I won't come back until the day after tomorrow."
Welcome to the art of negotiation, Republican style. Since the election of 2010, the United States has narrowly averted three Republican-built suicide bombs: one government shutdown, one debt default and one fiscal cliff. We have two more scheduled for February: across-the-board spending cuts and another debt ceiling expiration.
The Republicans' suicide strategy is a relatively new addition to American politics. Newt Gingrich pioneered the first government shutdown in 1995. It was so disastrous that no one tried it again for 16 years. In the meantime, Republicans pursued a more traditional method known as the democratic process. They campaigned for election and took control of the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. From 2001 to 2006, the dominant Republicans passed plenty of conservative legislation. (They did not, however, reduce spending or balance the budget.)
When their golden era came to an end, many Republicans refused to accept that the popular will had turned against them and resorted to obstructionist tactics. In the Senate, they have filibustered 391 Democratic bills in the past six years, culminating last month in Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's historic filibuster of his own bill. The Democrats are no strangers to the filibuster, of course, but they managed only 201 in their six years of minority status.
Yet the Senate is a model of effective government compared with the House, now the only Republican-dominated branch of the federal government. Frustrated by their inability to get conservative legislation past the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House, congressional Republicans have revived the "suicide bomb."
The key to the suicide bomb strategy is to convince people that members of the conservative wing of the Republican Party are crazy enough to wreck the economy if they don't get their way. Democratic leaders seem to believe them. Like the hapless bartender, they keep tossing the Republicans wads of cash – spending cuts and tax breaks – in order to spare the country from a debt default, shutdown or recession.
But this bomber will not be satisfied by a few payoffs. The Republicans continue to use every opportunity to extract concessions by threatening to wreck the economy ... again. When Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner proposed a permanent debt ceiling extension during the last round of negotiations, McConnell reportedly laughed in his face. The suicide bomb has become the Republicans' most effective weapon. Why would they give that up?
President Obama was slow to see the pattern, but after three nail-biting suicide negotiations in two years, he seems to have finally realized that he cannot continue to encourage the bomb threats with concessions. As attention turned to the next debt ceiling battle, he declared, "While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they've already racked up through the laws that they passed."
Hopefully, he will maintain this resolve. The endless threats not only enable Republicans to subvert the democratic process, they hurt the country. Even if the Republicans never actually fulfill their ultimatums, the anxiety provoked by such threats damages the economy by creating uncertain business conditions. To extend the metaphor: The suicide bomber is scaring away the customers.
So what will happen when Obama finally says enough is enough? Is the country destined to go BOOM?
Fortunately not. The joke has a hidden punchline. It turns out that the suicide bomber is a part-owner of the bar. The folks who will lose the most if the bomb goes off are the investors, bankers and businesspeople who still retain large stakes in the Republican Party. When the Republicans threatened to let the government default in 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry advocates objected with growing concern. If the Democrats refuse to negotiate this time around, industry advocates will not sit idly while the party they finance deliberately ruins their businesses.
But what if the conservative Republicans are really that crazy? What if they are so committed to their agenda and dismissive of their constituents that they will allow unemployment to rise, interest rates to skyrocket, government services to disappear, seniors to lose their Social Security checks and other catastrophic consequences of debt defaults and government shutdowns?
If that is the case, however unlikely, than we will only have to survive until the next election, at which point the Republicans will discover that suicide bombings produce only one guaranteed casualty: the bomber himself.
(Michael Wolraich is a founder of the political blog dagblog.com and the author of "Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual.")