There is a frustrating tendency in American political reporting to adopt a position of “both sides-ism” – as in, “both sides” are equally to blame for the nation’s chronic political dysfunction. Sometimes, it must be said, this assessment is correct. After all, the US political system was practically designed to breed legislative gridlock.
Not this time, however.
There is one party that is solely to blame for the first government shutdown in 17 years. And it’s the Republican party.
Indeed, the debate happening in Washington right now is not even between Democrats and Republicans. It’s not even about the deficit, or the budget, or government spending priorities. Rather, it is one strictly occurring between Republicans who are trying to find some magic bullet to destroy “Obamacare” – the country’s fiscal health be damned.
In the House of Representatives, bills that would allow the government to continue to operate were amended with provisions defunding or delaying Obamacare. This is, for Democrats, a nonstarter. The reason is obvious: the Affordable Care Act is the president’s signature achievement and he is not going to sign a bill that undoes or even delays it.
Nor should he. Obamacare is the law of the land. It was passed by Congress, signed by the president, upheld by the US supreme court, and it is already going into effect. There is no reason for President Obama to be cowed by such legislative extortion.
Yet, rather than accept the reality of Obamacare, Republicans are using the prospect of a government shutdown and/or a default on the nation’s debt to try to stop it.
In key respects, this dispiriting series of events is the logical conclusion of the Republican party’s descent into madness. The GOP has become a party dominated by a group of politicians who are fundamentally nihilistic, contemptuous of democracy and willing (even proud) to operate outside the long-accepted norms of American democracy.
In the US system of government, compromise is perhaps its most essential element. Republicans must work with Democrats; the House of Representatives must work with the Senate; and both bodies must find common ground with the president. It’s not always pretty, but it generally works.
The problem today is that the modern GOP thinks about compromise in the same way that imperial Japanese soldiers thought about surrender in the second world war. At least in defeat, Republicans can argue they fought to the last; but by compromising, they would be surrendering their principles.
That’s the only explanation for how members of the party can view the possibility of a government shutdown – or even worse, the catastrophe of debt default – as somehow a better option than reconciling themselves to the abomination that, bizarrely, they believe Obamacare to be.
Granted, this isn’t the view of all Republican office-holders – or even a majority. But it is the view of the party’s most extreme supporters, and today, it’s these individuals who are guiding the party’s leadership.
In fact, if the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, were to bring a clean budget bill to the House floor, with no provisions defunding or delaying Obamacare, it would almost certainly pass – with Democrats and Republicans joining together to support it. It would then get majority approval in the Senate and be signed by President Obama.
So, why hasn’t that happened yet? Because Boehner has pledged only to pass legislation that has the support of enough Republican members (unaided by Democrats) to be enacted. Since that is impossible right now, the government will shut down.
In the end, however, we have a pretty good sense of how this will turn out. The government will shut down for a few days, but perhaps more; and the US will come perilously close to a debt default. In the end, however, semi-sane Republicans will come to their senses, concede defeat and pass a budget resolution and debt limit extension with Democratic support.
That the US will have come to such a pass – for no reason other than the extremism of the Republican party – is an important reminder of who is blame for the governing dysfunction that has come to define the US democracy today.