David Frum

11.30.12

The Fiscal Cliff Madman Theory

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The conservatives calling for a dive off the fiscal cliff can be divided into two camps:

Group 1 is following the old Nixon "madman" strategy. In Nixon's words to his aide Bob Haldeman: "I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I've reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry, and he has his hand on the nuclear button, and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

This is the approach now being pushed by Charles Krauthammer and Keith Hennessy: If you look crazy enough to do anything, you might get better terms than perhaps strictly justified by the objective correlatives of power.

Group 2 is following the Richard Wagner "Götterdämmerung" strategy: destroying all about them in rage and despair. This is the approach urged by Brent Bozell and now today by Neil Patel and Tucker Cameron.

Here's the wrinkle: In the first weeks of the negotiations, Group 1 and Group 2 share a common interest. The more influential Group 2 looks within the GOP, the more sway Group 1 will have in budget negotiations with the Democrats. The problem is, that Group 2 could become so genuinely influential that it actually makes negotiations impossible. That's what nearly happened in the debt ceiling debate in the summer of 2011. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed back then. But back then, Republicans were in a tactically optimistic mood. They believed they were likely to sweep the elections of November 2012. Today, the Republican mood is much bleaker. Will that enhance the power of the cooler heads? Or detract?