Budget Roulette: The Uncertain End Game

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster

This budget crisis, weirdly, has nothing to do with the budget. It is the expression of the Tea Party Republicans’ animus against Obamacare, their general loathing of government, and their willingness to resort to wildly destructive tactics. As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the few heroes in this mess, put it so aptly, “They’ve lost their minds.”

A fine irony is that one of the few things that the government shutdown doesn’t affect is the Affordable Care Act, which takes effect today. The Act is a mandate to purchase affordable insurance via hybrid “exchanges,” which are not closed by the failure to approve a budget.

In a just world, the extremist Republicans would take the fall. Republicans as conservative as Dana Rohrabacher of California, who came to prominence as an ally of the John Birch Society, and arch conservative Karl Rove, have warned that the Republicans are courting political suicide. “What we’re doing here is shooting ourselves in the head,” Rohrabacher told the House Republican caucus. If Democrats hang tough, as Harry Reid has urged, it’s not clear how long the “burn-it-down” conservatives can hold out against the pragmatic conservatives (there are no Republican moderates.)

The best possible outcome would be for House Speaker John Boehner, after a week or two of mounting partisan damage, to break with the far right and allow a vote in which pragmatic Republicans in the House Caucus are permitted to vote with Democrats to approve the senate resolution to re-open the government.

But three factors make this fight far from an assured win for Democrats.

First, though the news coverage is getting better, much of the press still plays this as “partisan bickering” rather than one party losing its mind. Here is the lead paragraph in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal (this is the reportorial part of the Journal, not the hard-right editorial page):

“After three years of ducking crises with last-minute deals, Congress finally ran out of ways to patch over its differences. Unable to meet a midnight Monday deadline for funding the government, lawmakers allowed it to shut down.”

This is technically accurate, but wildly misleading. It isn’t that Congress “ran out of ways to patch its differences.” It’s that one of our two major parties has become nihilist. Unfortunately, much of the public understands both parties as equally blameworthy for the stalemate, though polls show that more people blame the GOP for the actual shutdown.

The second problem is that our high-minded and disengaged president leaves the less than charismatic Harry Reid to demonstrate leadership. Obama should be framing what this is really all about—an extremist opposition party that has lost its head. Instead, the president says things like, “I’m always willing to work with anyone of either party to make sure the Affordable Care Act works better, to make sure our government works better,” he told reporters Monday afternoon in the White House briefing room.

No, no, and no. He should not be willing to work with demonstrated extremists. Such conciliatory statements in the face of sheer lunacy signal wimp, wimp, wimp. They encourage Republicans to hold out, in the hope that Obama can be rolled yet again.

The third problem is The Affordable Care act itself. Polls show that people don’t understand it well and don’t support it. So it’s a plausible partisan punching bag. The scant public support is not the fault of the people. The law is blindingly complex; and even apart from the Republican obstructionism, it has genuine implementation problems. In that context, the latest ploy by the House—to call for a one-year delay in its implementation—doesn’t sound crazy on its face unless you are a policy wonk.

In sum: if the Democrats hold firm, they could win this one, substantively and politically. If they don’t follow Harry Reid’s leadership, Republicans will agree to re-open the government in exchange for lots of other Democratic concessions—maybe not the president’s signature legislation, but Social Security, Medicare, the Keystone Pipeline, more tax cuts, and several other issues on the GOP wish-list, on which Democrats shouldn’t budge.

It’s a calculated gamble for the right. Properly handled by Democrats, this forced and needless shutdown could cost the Republicans control of Congress. But if the Democrats play the “responsible” party and give up cherished protections in order to appease the far right and re-open the government, the Tea Party will be vindicated in its extremism and will be back for more next time.

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