The government shutdown is a crisis with its roots in both policy differences and disagreements about what means are appropriate to settle those policy differences. But it's also a conflict of individual people and personalities. Not that this should be news to anyone, but the key players involved—President Obama and the four congressional leaders, but most particularly John Boehner and Harry Reid—really, really don't like each other. Nothing too surprising there, but I'm beginning to wonder whether Democrats are helping things by the way they're talking about Boehner.
Ordinarily, this kind of thing might matter only at the margins, but we're in a situation now where personal enmities and bruised egos could play a significant part in how and when this whole thing gets settled.
Many people are talking today about this article in today's New York Times, which focuses on the particularly cruel doughnut hole created when the Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the expansion of Medicaid in the Affordable Care Act. The problem is that if you live in a (mostly Southern) state run by Republicans, you have to be desperately poor to qualify for Medicaid under existing rules. But it isn't until you get to 133 percent of the poverty level ($31,321 in yearly income for a family of four) that you're eligible for subsidies to buy insurance on the exchanges, because when the law was written the idea was that everyone under that income would get Medicaid. When all those Southern states decided to refuse the Medicaid expansion in order to shake their fist at Barack Obama, they screwed over their own poor citizens. So millions of people will be caught in the middle: not poor enough to get Medicaid, but too poor to get subsidies on the exchanges. But when we say "not poor enough," what we're actually talking about is people who are, in fact, extremely poor. And you'll be shocked to learn that in those states, the poor are disproportionately black. Could that have anything to do with it? Heavens, no!
In any case, I thought it might be worthwhile to lay out in one handy chart how, state by state, this will affect people. Under pre-ACA law, each state sets its own eligibility level for Medicaid. In more liberal states, these levels are fairly high; for instance, Massachusetts gives Medicaid to families up to 133 percent of poverty, New York up to 150 percent, and Minnesota up to 215 percent. But in conservative states, the levels are far stingier; as someone in the Times article says, "You got to be almost dead before you can get Medicaid in Mississippi." In addition, in most states childless adults can't get Medicaid no matter how poor they are, but under the ACA it will no longer matter whether you have children. This is just one more way conservative states that forego the Medicaid expansion (for which the federal government is picking up almost the entire tab, by the way) are harming their own citizens.
Newly famous Rep. Marlin Stutzman, seen here at left playing dress-up with other members of Congress. (Flicrk/SpeakerBoehner)
I'm always reluctant to make too much of any particular off-the-cuff statement a politician makes, to play that game where people on the other side say, "Aha! You have revealed yourself to the be the scoundrel we always knew you were, and this is the proof!" But sometimes, politicians do say revealing things, particularly in a situation like the one we're in now, where the outcome of a controversy that is already affecting millions of people and could threaten the entire economy is dependent on things like hurt feelings and the desire to feel like you won.
So the quote of the day comes from this article in the Washington Examiner, in which a Tea Party congressman sums up nicely the fight over the government shutdown:
"We're not going to be disrespected," conservative Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., added. "We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is."
Sadly, life does not embody the harmony of the black and white cookie. (Flickr/veganbaking.net)
I've often wondered how conservatives can tolerate a steady diet of the likes of Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Hannity. I don't mean why they find those kinds of programs appealing, because there are many reasons for that. I mean as a steady, long-term part of your daily routine. Doesn't the steady stream of outrage just become overwhelming after a while? Can you really shake your fist at the TV and sputter with rage every single night without making yourself crazy? That's not to say there aren't liberals with similar rhetoric, but there are fewer, and they aren't as successful. Keith Olbermann did it for a while, and Ed Schultz isn't that far off. But it does seem that liberals' taste in talk runs more to people like Rachel Maddow, who delivers her outrage with a smile and a joke, or the wonkishly thoughtful Chris Hayes. People on the left aren't averse to getting mad, but they don't want to be mad all the time.
Which brings us to this very interesting paper by Sarah Sobieraj and her colleagues, which sought to examine "outrage-based political opinion media" from a sociological point of view. That is, they talked to both liberals and conservatives who tune in to these programs about what they get out of them. Since the article is paywalled, all I have to go on is a description of it in Pacific Standard, so it's possible that some or all of my questions are discussed in the article itself. In any case, their main point is that these programs provide a kind of no-risk community, where people can feel a connection to others without the potential pitfalls that come from talking about politics in other contexts like work.
I'd add that there's a particular kind of emotional interaction going on when you watch one of these programs. The host—someone who is almost certainly more articulate than you (that's why he has a job talking for hours on the radio and TV, and you don't)—mirrors the emotions you feel about current events and controversies back at you in a way that's satisfying on multiple levels. He assures you that you're right, and he offers you clever arguments you can use to convince yourself (or others) that you're right. He usually tells you your side is going to prevail. And he validates your feelings by giving them back to you in a heightened way. Are you mad at Barack Obama? Well watch this: I'll give you the thunderous rant you wish you could deliver right to that jerk's face. You think he's a liar? Let me tell you all about his lies.
When we look back decades from now, one of the keys to understanding this period in our political history will be the story of how a set of market-based health insurance reforms that started as a proposal from the Heritage Foundation and then was successfully implemented by a Republican governor who later became the GOP presidential nominee, ended up being viewed by virtually all conservatives as not just an abomination but the very essence of statist oppression. Liberals have often expressed wonder or exasperation about the way conservatives changed their opinions about this particular brand of reform. But now that it's driving a government shutdown (and soon a potential default on the debt), we have to acknowledge that it's more than just a policy conservatives hate. The Affordable Care Act is far, far bigger than that. It has become the most important definer of conservatism in America circa 2013. It isn't that conservatives don't still want to cut taxes for the wealthy, or slash the social safety net, or liberate corporations from pesky regulations on worker safety and the environment, because they still want all those things. But Obamacare has swallowed conservatism whole.