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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Shutdown

The late Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill loved to remind colleagues  that “all politics is local,” and Tip’s truism is just about all you need to know about the true cause of the current stalemate in Washington, D.C. The handful of Republicans in the U.S. House aided, and abetted by a handful in the Senate, who have precipitated the first government shutdown in 19 years are playing almost exclusively to the conservative folks back home who have helped them along the GOP path to power.

The GOP faction that hates government and condemns any accommodation with the other side has little need to worry about how badly their tactics are playing with the vast majority of Americans, even among those coveted independents, because the shutdown caucus doesn’t care because they don’t have to care. As the Associated Press has noted: “Heavily gerrymandered districts make many House Democrats and Republicans virtual shoo-ins for re-election, insulating them from everything but the views in their slice of the country. That means some lawmakers can be greeted as heroes back home even if nationally the budget standoff comes to be viewed with scorn.”

“After every census and reapportionment, the blue districts get bluer and the red districts get redder,” said former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, using the colorful terms for liberal and conservative districts. “It’s against their electoral interests,” he said, for lawmakers from such districts to move toward the center rather than feed “red meat” to their most ideological constituents.

LaTourette, an ally of Speaker John Boehner is correct, but there is also a false equivalence to his argument. The most ideological Republicans, and many of the voters who sent them to Washington, are driven by what conservative writer Rod Dreher calls a desire to tear down rather than a desire, as members of the loyal opposition, to suggest alternatives and develop a genuinely appealing policy agenda. Democrats, say what you will about their programs, aren’t into hostage negotiations and most buy into the party’s broad policy agenda.

“When I think of the Republican Party,” Dreher writes, “I don’t think of principled conservative legislators who are men and women of vision strategy. I think of ideologues who are prepared to wreck things to get their way. They have confused prudence — the queen of virtues, and the cardinal virtue of conservative politics — with weakness.”

Idaho is a case study in the politics of government by GOP primary voters. The state’s First District Congressman Raul Labrador is generally regarded as a leader of the House faction that has essentially taken control of the national Republican Party and forced Speaker Boehner to march in front of the cameras every day and condemn the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – and generally carry the scalding water of the Tea Party. Labrador, you’ll  remember, was one of the insurgents in the House who came within a few votes earlier this year of kicking Boehner from the Speaker’s Office to the back benches.

Idaho’s Second District Congressman Mike Simpson, a serious legislator, Boehner ally and a seasoned politician not generally given over to political stunts, has, like Boehner, had to go mostly along with the insurgents in order to steel himself against what appears to be an increasingly serious primary challenge; a challenge financed by the same folks who have staked the next Congressional election on bringing the country – again – to the edge of a financial cliff all in the interest of holding hostage President Obama’s health care legislation.

But here is the political irony: the stakes of what is unfolding in Washington may be enormously high for national Republicans, for the economy, for the hundreds of thousands of government workers furloughed and for millions of Americans who are just beginning to feel the effects of a government that has ceased to function in any way that is normal, but there is little or no political consequence for Republicans like Labrador who are electorally secure in their ultra-safe districts. The Republicans who might face the wrath of voters next year are those GOP members like Simpson who haven’t slavishly steeped in the Tea Party’s hot broth of disdain, bordering on hatred for Obama and all that he stands for.

All politics is local and if your district is red enough you can take comfort in marching lock step off a cliff with the folks back home who dislike and distrust Obama so much that the Internet is alive with the rumor that somehow, someway the foreign-born, Muslim socialist in the White House will find a way to circumvent the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution and engineer a third term for himself. There is even a website devoted to Obama 2016. The amendment limiting a president to two terms was proposed, by the way, in the wake of Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms as president and was ratified in 1951, but no matter. The fear and loathing on the far right of the GOP is such that no conspiracy is too outrageous for Tea Party adherents not to worry.

As the New York Times notes today, “Republican elders worry that the tactics of [Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz and his allies in the House are reinforcing the party’s image as obstructionist, and benefiting Mr. Obama at a time when his standing with the public is sliding. A New York Times/CBS poll last week found that 49 percent of Americans disapprove of the president’s job performance.

“The story people see now is President Obama sinking like a rock for months, and the only thing holding him up are the Republicans,” lamented Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi who previously led the Republican National Committee. “We have to get to the best resolution we can under the Obama administration, and then focus on some other things.”

Good advice, not likely to be taken.

With the government shutdown and their demands about Obamacare, “Republicans are setting a precedent which, if followed, would make America ungovernable,” notes the Economist in an editorial. “Voters have seen fit to give their party control of one arm of government—the House of Representatives—while handing the Democrats the White House and the Senate. If a party with such a modest electoral mandate threatens to shut down government unless the other side repeals a law it does not like, apparently settled legislation will always be vulnerable to repeal by the minority. Washington will be permanently paralysed and America condemned to chronic uncertainty.

“It gets worse. Later this month the federal government will reach its legal borrowing limit, known as the ‘debt ceiling.’ Unless Congress raises that ceiling, Uncle Sam will soon be unable to pay all his bills. In other words, unless the two parties can work together, America will have to choose which of its obligations not to honour. It could slash spending so deeply that it causes a recession. Or it could default on its debts, which would be even worse, and unimaginably more harmful than a mere government shutdown. No one in Washington is that crazy, surely?”

We’ll see.

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