First rule: Don’t blink.
Someone will have to, but not just yet. From Ted Cruz and John Boehner to Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, lawmakers, politicians, dictators and future Presidents have all perfected the art of digging their heels into shifting sand.
Nuclear weapons? We have none, says Iran. Health care? We’ll have none, say House Republicans. Government shutdown? You step off the cliff first, say the Democrats. It’s been a good week to study the art of the standoff.
As autumn settles in here, the nights have turned cool and the rhetoric at the White House and on Capitol Hill has turned downright cold.
Not only are all sides trying to talk tougher than their opponents; they appear completely content to hurtle toward each other from opposite directions at ever higher speeds — on a single track.
House Speaker Boehner threw down the gauntlet this week on the Affordable Care Act. Pressured by the most conservative members of his caucus — in the House and the Senate — he insists that Republicans will only agree to a budget plan that eliminates funding for the health care law.
“The law is a train wreck,” he said more than once during a Capitol Hill news conference. “And it’s going to raise costs. It’s destroying American jobs, and it must go.”
But Boehner also acknowledged he has been hobbled by fights within his own party. “Whenever we’re trying to put together a plan, you know … we’ve got 233 members, all of whom have their own plan,” he said, declining to comment on the pressure his caucus is under from Senate Republicans as well.
Senate Democrats are not backing down. Instead, they are projecting calm about the prospect that missing their budget deadline could force a government shutdown. “Don’t make it part of your strategy that eventually we will cave,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said to Republicans. “We won’t! We’re unified.”
The president declared this week Republicans are trying to “extort” him by threatening inaction on the budget as, well as on the next big fight — raising the debt ceiling.
“What I will not do is to create a habit, a pattern, whereby the full faith and credit of the United States ends up being a bargaining chip to set policy,” the president said. “It’s irresponsible.”
Stare-downs are all the fashion on the international stage as well. The White House argues that Syria blinked when it agreed to acknowledge it possesses chemical weapons and to turn them over to international control. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and Russia, which brokered the deal, argues that they were the true peacemakers who concocted a way to avoid military action by the U.S.
The United Nations is now stepping in, and the showdown continues.
And suddenly, a new conversation has apparently sprung up between the U.S. and Iran — two countries that have proven to be champs at geopolitical stare-downs.
For now, the outreach between Mr. Obama and Iranian President Rouhani appears to be more style than substance, with targeted outreach to U.S. media and a friendly exchange of letters. But it is a huge shift, one in which neither has yet been forced to blink.
But someone will. And someone will blink during the economic and health care fights in Washington too. It’s just that no one has very much time left to make the first move.