Frame Game

The Mullahs of Washington

The Republican argument for using your vote to punish Republicans.

Eric Cantor and John Boehner at the U.S. Capitol on March 21, 2010.

Photo by Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images.

In recent days, some newspapers and pundits have made one last pitch for Mitt Romney’s election. The key question, they argue, is which presidential candidate can work with the Republicans who control Congress. Obama has tried but has been rebuffed. Only Romney can get the job done.

That’s the argument made by the Des Moines Register, the Orlando Sentinel, David Brooks, Ramesh Ponnuru, and other advocates of a Romney presidency. In Ponnuru’s words:

“If Obama wins re-election, the Republican Party will react by moving right, not left. It will become less likely to compromise with Obama … Republicans, especially at the grassroots level, would react to Obama’s re-election by assuming that Romney failed because he was too moderate. … [T]hey will be looking forward to the gains that the party out of the White House typically makes in midterm elections. The Republicans aren’t going to change.”

If Obama is re-elected, Brooks warns,

“The first order of business would be the budget deal, averting the so-called fiscal cliff. Obama would first go to Republicans in the Senate and say, ‘Look, we’re stuck with each other. Let’s cut a deal for the sake of the country.’ He would easily find 10 Republican senators willing to go along with a version of a Grand Bargain. Then Obama would go to the House. He’d ask Eric Cantor, the majority leader, if there were votes for such a deal. The answer would probably be no. Republican House members still have more to fear from a primary challenge from the right than from a general election challenge from the left. … [Romney] has more influence over the most intransigent element in the Washington equation: House Republicans. He’s more likely to get big stuff done.”

Several astute skeptics—Kevin Drum, Steve Benen, Ezra Klein, Eliot Spitzer—point out that this argument rewards intransigence. They’re right. But it also defies what Republican congressional leaders believe about conflict management. The most effective way to change the behavior of an intransigent opponent, according to these Republicans, isn’t conciliation. It’s confrontation and intimidation.

Take Eric Cantor, the guy who, in Brooks’ scenario, would deep-six Obama’s second-term overture. Two years ago, Cantor ridiculed Obama for sucking up to Russia, Iran, Syria, and the Arab world:

The problem with the Obama defense and foreign policy philosophy is that it seems to abandon the proven strategy of peace through strength. … In this view, our most vexing issues can be resolved by adjusting our own behavior in order to compromise with our enemies. … If Iran wants to threaten the world with nuclear weapons, so it goes, it must be because President Bush refused to engage with it. And if Syria endangers our troops in Iraq and funds Mideast terrorism, we should somehow offer it more carrots and less sticks to convince it to change. The problem is that this kind of accommodating attitude toward our enemies never works.

“U.S. calls for dialogue only strengthened Tehran’s hand,” Cantor scoffed, and “playing nice has failed to peel Syria away from Iran.” Obama’s attempt to “placate Russia” achieved nothing, as did his trip to Cairo “to apologize on behalf of America.” Around the world, Cantor concluded, “a perception of weakness and irresolution has emboldened America’s enemies.”

Cantor’s ostensible boss, House Speaker John Boehner, takes a similar view. “Every time we make a concession to countries acting against our national interests,” Boehner argued two years ago, “we pay a price.” In defying American entreaties, he reasoned, Iran’s leaders were simply following a “cost-benefit analysis.” Likewise, Boehner warned last year that Russia was exploiting two years of “American outreach and American engagement” to expand its “sphere of influence.”

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, delivered a similar critique earlier this year:

Upon taking office, President Obama took several steps to pursue negotiations with Iran. He famously suggested that if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they’ll find an extended hand from us. He recorded a YouTube message to the Iranian people. He also reportedly wrote a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader inviting him to talk without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. This was the engagement phase. … But instead of using this period to demonstrate progress, Iran used it to continue enriching uranium and to divide the international community.

Romney applied the same diagnosis to Moscow:

“As part of the so-called reset in policy, missile defenses were sacrificed as a unilateral concession to the Russian government. If that gesture was designed to inspire good will from Russia, it clearly missed the mark. The Russian government defended the dictator in Damascus, arming him as he slaughtered the Syrian people. … In the end, it is resolve that moves events in our direction, and strength that keeps the peace.”

Romney, McConnell, Boehner, and Cantor aren’t talking about themselves, of course. They’re talking about leaders of other countries. But in doing so, they illuminate their own thinking. Every interpretation of another person’s behavior relies in part on projection. And because you aren’t talking about yourself, you don’t apply the usual layers of deception. That’s why the best clue to a politician’s thinking isn’t what he says about his own motives. It’s what he says about his opponent’s motives.

It may be true in Tehran, Damascus, Cairo, or Moscow that it’s better to be feared than loved. But it’s certainly true in Washington. That’s why voting for Romney to appease the Republican right is such a bad idea. “The Republican strategy to deny the president any cooperation and make his Washington a depressing and dysfunctional place has done Obama enormous political damage,” Klein observes. “While it’s true that President Romney could expect more cooperation from congressional Republicans, in the long term, a vote against Obama on these grounds is a vote for more of this kind of gridlock. … If this strategy wins Republicans the election, they’ll employ it next time they face a Democratic president, too.”

Cantor, Boehner, and McConnell couldn’t have said it better themselves. It’s resolve that moves events. Outreach, concession, and accommodation failed. What we need now is less carrot and more stick. On Tuesday, you’re the stick.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: