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The GOP’s Ingenious Madman Strategy

Posted on Mar 6, 2011

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

Richard Nixon espoused what he called “the madman theory.” It’s a negotiating approach that induces the other side to believe you are capable of dangerously irrational actions and leads it to back down to avoid the wreckage your rage might let loose.

House Republicans are pursuing their own madman theory in budget negotiations, with a clever twist: Speaker John Boehner is casting himself as the reasonable man fully prepared to reach a deal to avoid a government shutdown. But he also has to satisfy a band of “wild-eyed bomb-throwing freshmen,” as he characterized new House members in Friday’s Wall Street Journal by way of comparing them fondly to his younger self.

Thus are negotiators for President Obama and Senate Democrats forced to deal not only with Republican leaders in the room but also with a menacing specter outside its confines. As “responsible” public officials, Democrats are asked to make additional concessions just to keep the bomb-throwers at bay.

This is the perverse genius of what the House Republicans are up to: Nobody really thinks that anything like their $57 billion in remaining proposed budget cuts can pass. It’s unlikely that all of their own members are confident about all of the cuts they have voted for. But by taking such a large collection of programs hostage, the GOP can be quite certain to win many more fights than it would if each reduction were considered separately.

Begin with the outrageous $1.1 billion, 15 percent cut from Head Start, a program that offers preschool education to roughly 965,000 poor children. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, this would knock 218,000 kids out of Head Start and force 16,000 classrooms to close.


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That, to upend the president’s favorite slogan, is an excellent way to lose the future. What could be a better use of public money than helping our poorest children early in life so they might achieve more in school, and later?

And for those who say that Head Start is not as good as it should be, the administration announced plans last September to require lower-performing Head Start programs to compete against other entities for continued funding. Isn’t this the sort of competition conservatives say they’re for?

Given what science has shown about the importance of a child’s first years, we need better and broader early childhood programs. Slashing them can only cause harm—to mothers, to children, and to the country.

Then there are the cuts at the other end of the education continuum. The House budget would reduce the maximum Pell Grant, which helps needy kids go to college, by $845, from $5,550 available now. According to Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes the FinAid website that gives financial-aid advice, 1.7 million low-income students would lose eligibility for Pell Grants, almost a fifth of current recipients. Is that what Americans voted for last November?

But here is where the Republicans’ strategy works so brilliantly. Let’s assume that neither the administration nor Senate Democrats—even the most timid among them—can allow the Head Start or Pell Grant cuts to go through. That still leaves a lot of other truly worthy programs to be defended. By heaping cut upon cut, Republicans get advocates of each particular cause fighting among themselves.

And with so many reductions on the table, voters who would actually oppose most of them if they knew the details don’t get to hear much about any individual item because the media concentrate almost entirely on the partisan drama of the shutdown fight, not the particulars.

You can also imagine the argument from those Democrats petrified of their own shadows. “Well,” say the scaredy-cats, “we have to save Pell Grants and Head Start, so why don’t we give House Republicans what they want on the National Endowment for the Arts—or their cuts in foreign aid, the Centers for Disease Control, medical research, the Women Infants and Children program, meals-on-wheels, or mine safety inspections? I mean, we have to give them something, or those crazies will shut down the government, and we might get blamed.”

Boehner can just sit back and smile benignly as Democrats battle over which concessions they should give him. When the negotiating gets tough, he can sadly warn that his freshmen need more because he can’t guarantee what they’ll do. The perpetually tanned one is a shrewd dude. Democrats who underestimate him will only be playing into his hands. 

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Michael Shaw, March 10, 2011 at 2:27 am Link to this comment

The GOP intent is clear, utilize disaster capitalism to privatize everything from towns and municipalities to Social Security. If they succeed, democracy will no longer exist, only a corporate quasi fascist police state where the corporations have all the freedom while the rest of us will have only “compassionate” conservatism to turn to. Naomi Klein had it right from the get go! We the People are literally in the battle for our lives and sadly, many democratic leaders, including the president seem more so to be willing to enable this GOP led insanity than to fight it!

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By felicity, March 8, 2011 at 2:44 pm Link to this comment

Yes, bluesman.  I do wonder how many jobs were created
by the person who a few years ago paid $49 million for
a Renoir painting.

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By brianrouth, March 8, 2011 at 2:43 pm Link to this comment

you might this movie interesting

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By Marc Schlee, March 8, 2011 at 3:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s all kayfabe!

The GOP pretends to demand 1000% more than they really want.

The Dems pretend to compromise and give them 500%.

We get screwed, again.



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By tomatoboy, March 8, 2011 at 12:36 am Link to this comment

Why must the Democrats be such shameless wimps and constantly have the fight taken to them. Want to know how to change the self-annihilating tenor of these budget debates and turn the tables on these insane Republicans? 


But then again, that would take brains and balls, neither of which many dems these days seem to posses.

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By bluesman, March 7, 2011 at 10:34 pm Link to this comment

3%. That’s all the difference that was between what was needed and what was given. 3% is the difference between sanity and insanity.
Zero cuts would be needed if the sissy Democrats had held out and told the Right Wing NO on the tax cut package for the rich.
On a $500,000 salary, that is $15,000- chump change for these greed filled ninnies, but a world of difference for the budgets of states as well as the federal government.
And this doesn’t take into account that 69% of the Fortune 500 pay ZERO income taxes.
Good grief, there are families surviving (barely) on a yearly salary of $15,000, but we have to give the greedy “job creators” a tax cut.
BTW, how is that going for all of us?
Not well if you’ve been paying attention.

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By Paco, March 7, 2011 at 5:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The only problem with this madman theory is that the GOP really is led by madmen, not by rational people who are only pretending to be madmen.  The evidence for this is that if (and probably when) they get what they want it will destroy our economy, our country and our ecology.  Only true madmen would want these end results.

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By TDoff, March 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm Link to this comment

The Madman Theory negates the civilized concepts of bipartisanship and compromise, which suggest a meeting of the minds halfway in between the opposing positions. In our current situation the madmen have adopted a position so extreme that a halfway compromise becomes wildly skewed, way past center toward their end of the spectrum. In our case, the Madman Theory is not just a radical negotiating ploy, it expresses the reality that the GOP is directed and lead by a group of madmen. And since they are mindless, there is no possibility of a meeting of the minds, halfway or otherwise. Compromise and bipartisanship are therefore precluded, a bare-knuckle brawl seems
inevitable…unless the wimpy Dems cave. And if The Wimps cave on our future…..well, then both they AND the GOPers deserve to lose the next election. And if there is no new party to elect, it’s hard to imagine that we could do any worse with no government at all than we are doing with the one we have.

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By SarcastiCanuck, March 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Better give Boehner what he wants or he might start crying.Also,a future of less education and opportunity for the poor in a country awash in handguns.Better start building your saferooms now folks..

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By A. Benway, March 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In game theory the madman ploy has two possible responses. These are: 1) because the opponent is mad the game becomes unplayable, stop playing. 2) because the opponent is mad and the game unplayable, take indirect actions to remove the mad player. These are not necessarily exclusive responses. In the example of Nixon we see the second response writ large. In the present example, well, we see the people doing the first and trying to do the second…

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By felicity, March 7, 2011 at 11:01 am Link to this comment

I’d argue that this crusade against government (and for
the elimination of the Democratic Party) was begun
about 30 years ago. 

What seems to any reasonable individual as a train-
wreck, modern America, to the crusaders is what they’ve
been working for, and towards, for years.  All is well.

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By Jim Yell, March 7, 2011 at 10:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am one who believes that bipartisonship is a mistake. I believe this because it has become a code word for caving into the Right Wings agenda to control all the benifits of society without having any responsibility for fairness or good government.

So much of this mischief is generated by the Religously Afflicted who seem unconcerned about their dogma which talks a great deal about morality and then turns around and encourages murder, rape and theft. I believe each person has a right to figure out a world view, but they don’t have the right to inflict it on the rest of us.

Our Bill of Rights has been circumvented by the Right Wing and rendered impotent and our supposed President of a Return to Balanced and lawful government continues to cave to the Right Wing. This is so promonent a strategy that one must ask, “is Obama a Corporate Shill?”

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, March 7, 2011 at 9:42 am Link to this comment


EJD: That, to upend the president’s favorite slogan, is an excellent way to lose the future. What could be a better use of public money than helping our poorest children early in life so they might achieve more in school, and later?

This is an understatement if I’ve ever seen one.

It is not just our “poorest children” that are under-educated (or uneducated, but that could be the case as well.) When compared with other countries, even our HS-diplomaed youth come up looking badly. If interested, consult the latest results of the OECD international assessment program here.

It will please some of us that the US looks “OK”. Meaning it is far from being in first place amongst the more than 25 countries participating in the program - but it is doing better than demographically and economically comparable countries, like the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, etc.

But there is in that listing one country that should interest us greatly. Because it is just to the north of us, namely, Canada. Which does a great deal better in the scores.

So what is it, I am fond of asking, that Canada does that we cannot do? How do they educate their young that is so different from ours?

And, please, if you care to respond with an explanation, do not mention “fewer immigrants”. Because that is NOT the answer either.

Immigrants in America prove, over time, that they do better than native Americans (no, I don’t mean Indians) in university. In fact, at the graduate school level they leave American-born students in the dust.


Go north, young man, if you want a proper schooling ...

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By aacme88, March 7, 2011 at 9:25 am Link to this comment

Or, how about reclaiming a tiny bit of the giveaways to the rich over the last 30 years and not cut anything? Or end the 2 wars and the deficit at the same time? Or end corporate welfare? Bring back inheritance tax? Stimulate the economy so revenues come back?
Or all those things, and bring back revenue sharing with the states, and have no more money problems. In other words, repeal the Republican Revolution. We tried it. We don’t like it.

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By Just Wondering..., March 7, 2011 at 8:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why not madwoman or madperson?

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By Inherit The Wind, March 7, 2011 at 7:34 am Link to this comment

And Boehner knows that the Dems WILL roll—they always do.

I’m reminded of the criminal who holds a gun to a person’s head, and then tells another person that if he doesn’t do as the gunman says and the gunman shoots, it will be that other person’s fault.

No, it’s the gunman who is still the murderer.

So, if the government is shut down because the Democrats don’t accept the cruel, mindless, and ultimately ineffective GOP cuts, it won’t be the Democrats’ fault—it will still be the GOP that murdered the government.

The Squid-o-crats need to call the Re-thugs’ bluff for once and for all.  When Clinton did it, his ability to get things done got a WHOLE lot easier.

Let ‘em shut down the government.  Let ‘em show the American people they don’t give a shit about them. They are already figuring it out in Wisconsin, where 2/3 of the public want Walker to cut the shit out and compromise.  And they are figuring it out in Ohio, Indiana, Florida and here in New Jersey.

You want SANE effective cuts that work and look to the future?  Look at what Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo are doing (both highly liberal Democrats) in Cali and NY.  And they are doing it with FAR less opposition and FAR more public support.

The TeaParty model doesn’t work and Americans are FINALLY figuring it out now that these assholes are in power and are fucking things up.  Walker is clearly planning to privatize the utilities and sell them to the Kochs and others at HIGHLY discounted (non-compete) prices.

I only hope it’s not too late…..

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