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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Republican Party and the “Pretend to be Crazy” Strategy

There are two places where the “pretend to be crazy” strategy is a pretty standard ploy – in street fights or barroom brawls on the one hand and “big bluff” business negotiations on the other.
Oh, wait a minute. There are actually three places. The third one is in the Republican Party.
In a street fight or barroom brawl the essence of the strategy is to have carefully cultivated a reputation for barely contained psychotic anger and utterly reckless disregard for consequences. The person using this strategy counts on potential challengers begin told by their friends “hey man, you don’t want to mess with that guy, he’s flat-out crazy. He might do anything”
In “big bluff” business negotiations the strategy is to feign an irrational, “over the top” attitude toward some particular contract provision or financial offer. This is usually packaged with a particularly florid or sanguinary metaphor e.g. “I’d rather cut off my right arm and throw it in the nearest garbage can than sign an incredibly stupid contract like that.” Operatic flourishes of this kind tend to derail any attempts to discuss the issue calmly and rationally.
The Republican Party’s version of the “pretend to be crazy” strategy is a mixture of the two approaches – a combination of reckless indifference to the real-world consequences of some stance and a theatrical refusal to seriously discuss realistic solutions.
There’s a long history of the use of this strategy in the Republican Party. Milton Friedman’s original “starve the beast” strategy was essentially to push the American government into bankruptcy by offering tax cut after tax cut without any regard for normal fiscal prudence or responsible management of the economy. This, it was assumed, would finally force government to cut programs that conservative Republicans disliked but that the electorate strongly supported. Later on, in the 1990’s there was Newt Gingrich’s “shutdown” of the federal government to extort his agenda – a mixture of bluff and irresponsibility that backfired when Bill Clinton refused to play along.
Today’s version of this approach is dramatically on display in the total disregard the Republicans are showing for the potentially profound economic damage their legislative brinksmanship can cause and the near-infantile way in which they play with words on the subject – “spending isn’t stimulus”, “this is a spending bill not a economic recovery bill” and so on rather than seriously discussing the realistic economic choices that must be made.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” counter-strategy for dealing with the “pretend you’re crazy” approach, but there is one good rule of thumb — Democrats should explicitly point out the game that is being played. They should say clearly:
“The reason the Republicans feel free to act in such an incredibly irresponsible way in this difficult situation is that they are counting on President Obama and the Democrats to behave responsibly and bail them out. Their behavior resembles the spoiled teen-ager who gets arrested again and again because he knows his father is a judge who will always get him off.”
The essence of this counter-strategy is to redefine what the Republicans want to call a stance based on “principles” as a stance that is instead fundamentally childish and irresponsible. To most Americans, engaging in serious negotiation and seeking reasonable compromise in a difficult situation like the present one represents “adult” or “grown-up” behavior. Politicians who refuse to engage in such activities are therefore, essentially behaving like children.

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