As a child I was bullied by bigger boys who threatened to beat me up if I didn't give them what they wanted. But every time I gave in to their demands, their subsequent demands grew larger. First they wanted the change in my pocket. Next it was the dessert in my lunchbox. Then my new Davy Crockett cap. Then the softball and bat I got for my birthday.
Finally I stopped giving in. When the bullies began roughing me up on the playground, some older boys came to my rescue and threatened my tormenters with black eyes if they ever touched me again. That ended their extortion racket.
What's happening in Washington these days may seem far removed from my boyhood memories, but Washington is really just another children's playground. Its current bullies are right-wing Republicans, now threatening that if they don't get their way they'll close down the government and cause the nation to default on its debts.
"The American people don't want a government shutdown, and they don't want Obamacare," House Republican leaders said in a statement over the weekend. "We will do our job and send this bill over, and then it's up to the Senate to pass it and stop a government showdown."
Really? The American people don't want Obamacare as much as I didn't want my softball and bat.
OK, maybe not quite as much. But the only settled way we know what the American people want is through the democratic process. And the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is the law of the land. A majority of the House and Senate voted for it, the president signed it into law, its constitutionality has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and a majority of Americans re-elected the president after an election battle in which the Affordable Care Act was a central issue.
Moreover, we don't repeal laws in this country by holding hostage the entire government of the United States.
The bullies are a faction inside the Republican Party -- extremists who are threatening more reasonable Republicans with primary challenges if they don't go along.
And where are the Tea Party extremists getting their dough? From even bigger bullies -- a handful of hugely wealthy Americans who are sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into this extortion racket.
They include David and Charles Koch (and their front group, Americans for Prosperity); Peter Thiel, leverage-buyout specialist John Childs, investor Howie Rich, and executives of JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, all behind the Club for Growth; and Crow Holdings' Harlan Crow, shipping magnate Richard Uihlein, investment banker Foster Friess, executives of MetLife and Philip Morris, and foundations controlled by the Scaife family, all bankrolling FreedomWorks.
Their game plan is to not just to take over the Republican Party; it's to take over America. The showdown over the budget and the debt ceiling is a prelude to 2016, when they plan to run Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president. (Senator Cruz, if you haven't noticed, is busily establishing his cred as the biggest flamethrower in Washington -- orchestrating not only the current extortion but also the purge of reasonable Republicans from the GOP.)
President Obama and the Democrats must not give in. They shouldn't even negotiate with extortionists. As I learned the hard way, giving in to bullies just encourages them to escalate their demands.
The president began negotiations with the Republican bullies in 2011, when they first threatened to default on the nation's debt if they didn't get the spending cuts they wanted. He negotiated again at the end of 2012, when they threatened to go over the fiscal cliff and take the rest of the nation with them if they didn't get the budget they wanted. Now they want to repeal a law they detest. If he gives in again, what's next? A coup d'état?
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Beyond Outrage," now available in paperback. His new film, "Inequality for All," was released Sept. 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun