Gwen’s Take: The Threat Matrix

Posted: Thu, 09/26/2013 - 3:46pm

From Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill; from the United Nations to Tehran … everybody seems to be talking tough.

Hassan Rouhani, the suddenly accessible new President of Iran, declared in more than one venue this week that he is a man of peace, but one who needs to keep building nuclear plants.

The threat? That he is not to be believed.

President Obama used mockery and laughter to tell Republicans in Congress he positively, definitely, has no intention of negotiating over raising the debt limit ceiling. (This, from a leader who is willing to sit down with Iran after more than three decades of diplomatic deep freeze.)

The threat? That the government could shut down and weeks later, lurch into default.

The rhetorical volleys have flown fast and furious on both domestic and foreign policy fronts all week.

As Republicans jockeyed for an advantage over the budget, they sought to link it to the future of the health care law the President championed. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader who is facing a reelection challenge in increasingly conservative Kentucky, summed it up. “This law is a mess. It needs to go. It’s way past time to start over."

McConnell, however, was not willing to sign on to every effort to derail the law, including this week’s high profile effort to talk it to death on the Senate floor.

“A great many Texans, a great many Americans feel they do not have a voice,” said Ted Cruz, the Republican Senator who spent 21 consecutive hours railing against the health care law in the Senate chamber. “And so I hope to play some very small role in providing the voice.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz argued for defunding Obamacare as part of the government-funding bill in a 21-hour marathon filibuster [CNN].

Democrats essentially let him have the floor, knowing they controlled the procedural levers needed to decouple the future of the health care law from the fight to pass a budget and avoid a government shutdown.

The president saw an opportunity. As Congress moved toward next month’s potentially more consequential fight over raising the debt limit, he turned up the flame on his rhetoric during a Thursday campaign-style appearance in suburban Maryland.

“No Congress before this one has ever, ever in history been irresponsible enough to threaten default, to threaten an economic shutdown, to suggest America not pay its bills, just to try to blackmail a president into giving them some concessions on issues that had nothing to do with the budget,” he said.

In a speech on Thursday, Obama defended the 2010 Affordable Care Act against Republican critics [Photo:CNN].

“I will not negotiate on anything when it comes to the full faith and credit of the United States of America,” he said to cheers and applause. “We're not going to submit to this kind of total irresponsibility. Congress needs to pay our bills on time.”

House Speaker John Boehner’s response to this threat was dry. “The president says I’m not going to negotiate,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “Well I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way.”

At the United Nations, the talk was of a different kind of threat. The Iranians, chafing under years of economic sanctions they consider a threat to their economic survival, want to deal.

Eschewing the harsh talk embraced by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani sat down with Western interviewers to acknowledge that the Holocaust actually happened (“Why would I want to deny it?” he told Charlie Rose); to denounce the use of weapons of mass destruction; and to pledge to develop nuclear power only for peaceful use.

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, sat down with western media this week while he was at the United Nations General Assembly [Photo: CNN].

“Let us bestow upon future generations a nuclear weapon-free world,” he said in a United Nations address. “This is their right and our responsibility. 

But neither side is accepting the other at face value. That’s what threats are all about. Secretary of State John Kerry said he would know what to believe “after they have been serious.”

And after the Iranians decided against staging a friendly handshake with the American President earlier in the week, caution appears to trump promise – and threat to trump compromise -- for both sides.

“We need a plan to ensure that those meetings ... create conclusions we want,” Rouhani told a group of American journalists and news executives in New York. “We need time."

Funny. That’s what Congress is asking for too.