Saturday, October 5, 2013

Being Mad As Hell At the Government Shutdown

I was just at a conference this week where I bumped into a former mentor of sorts. Always pleased to see him, I came over to chat about how things were going back at the mother ship, who was up to what, and so on. As part of the small talk, the government shutdown got mentioned. He just shook his head. "Those people are all crazy down there," he said, and just as I was about to ask which people he meant, he clarified it. "Democrat, Republican...I'd just vote 'no' for all of them if I could."

This is not a stupid man, although this is a decidedly stupid sentiment, and it almost certainly comes from automatically assuming that if there's a "problem in Washington", then the problem is shared equally, since there are radicals on both sides, and the extremes of the party hold the mainstream hostage, preventing the can't-we-just-fix-the-problem Good Guys & Gals from doing their job. Thus, as the shutdown drags on--and we careen toward what nearly everyone acknowledges is a much more consequential fight over the debt ceiling--people are having their "Mad As Hell" moments, both publicly and privately.

Witness, for instance, this CNN diatribe against the madness by Tom Foreman. In it, he blames everything on, well, everyone associated with the mess: "Democrats, Republicans, and the Insane Leap Into the Abyss" is its title, and it starts by stomping its feet in frustration over how the shutdown has just ruined the wedding plans of one happy couple who wanted to tie the knot at the Grand Canyon National Park, but now cannot due to its closure. (That there may be some people affected much more profoundly is indicative of the shallowness of the piece.) And who is at fault? "To be sure, there is enough blame out there to choke a horse," Foreman writes. "Polls show the Republicans taking the worst of it, but Democrats and President Obama are also being hammered for their part in the debacle."

In short, Foreman has absolutely no idea who is at fault because he is utterly ignorant of the details that led to the shutdown, and assumed that since there's an impasse, it must be everyone's fault--although those darned polls seem to think that the Republicans might just have a slightly bigger problem. A journalist who needs to resort to polling to help him figure out who deserves blame has major cognitive limitations.

Mercifully, elsewhere on the CNN website is a reasonably decent evaluation of the situation by Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria's followed the bouncing ball over the past two years, and he understands that the Democrats--especially through President Obama's previous ineptitude in handling the last budget fight--have basically already given every major policy demand to the Republicans despite having a Democrat in the White House and control of the Senate. "What cannot be allowed to stand is the notion that if a group of legislators cannot convince a majority in both houses and the president to agree with them, they will shut down the government or threaten to default until they can get their way," says Zakaria. "That is extortion, not democracy." Which is an accurate assessment of the situation. Just because it lays blame squarely at the feet of one group does not make it partisan. It makes it accurate.

Here's a detail that Tom Foreman may not have bothered to learn: the "clean CR" that the Republicans will not put up for a vote is the budget to keep the government running at "sequester levels", basically what Paul Ryan proposed when he ran with Mitt Romney. They lost, by the way, although an analysis of actual policies would lead disinterested observers to conclude otherwise. Every Democrat opposes these levels, so to ask the Republican House to simply agree to that is already having capitulated to an astonishing degree. Despite the Republican Party controlling only half of the legislative branch, and none of the executive branch, the fiscal policy of the federal government is somehow not only thoroughly Republican, it is, in effect, a dream budget for Tea Party politicians.

But even that wasn't enough for them to declare victory. What more is there to compromise, with the Dems with their backs to the wall, having blundered into the sequester, which appears as if it will be federal budget policy for the foreseeable future? There's only one thing that's left: the Affordable Care Act. For Obama, or the Senate Dems, to give this away would basically be to declare themselves to be Republicans. There would be no two-party governance in this country; it's already tilted heavily in favor of the Tea Party. The Tea Partiers don't believe this, of course. I can forgive them for this lack of appreciation for their own success because they are, as a movement, insane. I am far less patient with my friends and neighbors who don't follow politics enough to understand the dynamic of Washington since the Tea Party has been ascendant.

That is what worries me about the Foreman "everyone's at fault" piece. I think he's representative of a huge chunk of Americans who are, understandably, mad as hell, but who also are, somewhat less understandably, inchoate in their grasp of even the most basic details of how our government has been working, or rather, hasn't.

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