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Why You Don’t Negotiate for Hostages

It is conventional wisdom never to negotiate for hostages, because such bargaining only makes hostage taking worthwhile. If there were no value available from hostage taking, people would have little reason to try taking hostages. If you do pay for a hostage, it signals to your adversaries that hostage taking is a great idea and they should do more of it.

Recently, President Obama again was taught this negotiation 101 lesson. Once again House Speaker John Boehner is threatening to hold the debt limit hostage in exchange for another round of one dollar of spending cuts for one dollar of debt increase. From a policy perspective I consider Boehner’s ask an idiotic demand that will do real damage to the economy, but this is the right move for Boehner as a negotiator.

Obama has repeatedly proven that he doesn’t have the resolve to stand up against this tactic. On both the extension of the Bush Tax Cuts and the first debt ceiling deal, Boehner took an unrelenting stance and Obama responded by quickly caving. Obama even publicly stated after one such showdown that he feels he must fold in the face of such hostage taking tactic.

Given that Obama has allowed this tactic to be so effective, it would be almost malpractice for Boehner not to use it more often to get what he wants. This is not the first time Boehner has take such a position, and if Obama keeps acting in the weak manner he has so far, it will not be the last time.

A lot has been made recently about how the problem with our government is that the Republican party has been taken over by extremists who refuse to compromise. While that is where much of the blame lies, if Democrats hadn’t repeatedly enabled, empowered and rewarded this approach, maybe the Republicans wouldn’t have so much incentive to adopt it. The Republicans have zero reason to actually compromise if they can get what they want without them needing to make concessions.

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at