How the Shutdown Crisis Will Be Resolved

Sorry, Mr. President, the tea party isn’t going away, and they’re fighting for ‘principle’ as much as you are. So you are going to have that ‘conversation’ Boehner wants.

Speaker of the House John Boehner and National Security Advisor Susan Rice listen as President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Syria during a meeting with members of Congress at the White House in Washington, DC, September 3, 2013.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Oct. 8, 2013, 10:03 a.m.

Let’s get a few things out of the way. Sorry, E.J. Di­onne, but what you and oth­er lib­er­al pun­dits have been writ­ing wish­fully since 2010 — that the tea party move­ment is a passing phe­nomen­on ““ is as wrong now as it was then. Tea parti­ers may be un­pop­u­lar in the na­tion’s me­dia mec­cas, but they are a grow­ing grass­roots ag­glom­er­a­tion that is go­ing to have much big­ger im­pact on polit­ics than “Gang of Eight”-style com­prom­isers, at least for a long while to come.

That’s be­cause they see them­selves as fight­ing for a prin­ciple as sac­rosanct as the one their op­pon­ent, Pres­id­ent Obama, has laid out. Obama is say­ing now, as he has since the be­gin­ning of the year, that he will no longer ne­go­ti­ate in a gov­ern­ment-by-host­age-crisis at­mo­sphere. The tea parti­ers are say­ing now, as they have for three years, that they will no longer tol­er­ate gov­ern­ment growth as usu­al — in this case, the ad­vent of a new pro­gram, Obama­care, that they know will be­come yet an­oth­er ir­re­mov­able and per­man­ent node of big gov­ern­ment if it goes fully in­to ef­fect. And the only tool they have left is the debt ceil­ing.

It’s a little like the abor­tion de­bate. At odds here are two ir­re­con­cil­able prin­ciples. It is, there­fore, a dis­pute that can’t be re­solved on prin­ciple. It must be muddled through. And that is why, Mr. Pres­id­ent, at some point soon — though not this week, not yet, surely — you are go­ing to have that “con­ver­sa­tion” that Speak­er John Boehner so badly wants.  

Yes, Mr. Pres­id­ent, you have ample reas­on to con­tin­ue say­ing no, just as you are do­ing now. (The latest Tues­day morn­ing: “The pres­id­ent called the speak­er again today to re­it­er­ate that he won’t ne­go­ti­ate on a gov­ern­ment fund­ing bill or debt lim­it in­crease,” Boehner spokes­man Brendan Buck said.) You are right: Obama­care is now law, duly passed by Con­gress and then smiled upon by a ma­jor­ity of both the elect­or­ate and the Su­preme Court in 2012. There is no chance you can give up any piece of your greatest do­mest­ic achieve­ment. You are also right to say that the world’s only su­per­power, the sole sta­bil­iz­ing force on the plan­et, can­not con­tin­ue to gov­ern like a car on the fritz, stop­ping and start­ing and stop­ping again and nev­er get­ting out of first gear be­cause its drivers don’t know when the next gas sta­tion (read: budget) is com­ing along.

But you are still not go­ing to win against the tea party move­ment and its per­fect sock pup­pet, John Boehner, whose will is no longer his own. The tea parti­ers are simply not go­ing away. Amply fun­ded by the Kochs and grass-roots sup­port­ers, and even by Big To­bacco and some Wall Streeters, they will con­tin­ue to pile on GOP primary chal­lenges that will keep Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents in a state of elect­or­al ter­ror lead­ing up to 2014. And as wild and un­res­trained as their rhet­or­ic some­times is, es­pe­cially in de­mon­iz­ing Obama­care, the tea parti­ers are not mak­ing their deep­er griev­ances up. They are sin­cerely mo­tiv­ated by seem­ingly un­stop­pable tend­ency of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to grow lar­ger, and the fail­ure of both parties to lim­it it over many dec­ades. The U.S. gov­ern­ment has achieved many fine things over the last 60 years or so. It won a world war, re­ordered the glob­al sys­tem, put a man on the moon, and cre­ated the In­ter­net. But it has also meta­stas­ized like a gi­ant tu­mor, es­pe­cially since World War II. A 2006 study by the Fed­er­al Re­serve of St. Louis showed only small growth from 1792 un­til World War II (with a spike dur­ing WWI), but then a re­lent­less steady rise since a brief fall-off in war spend­ing in the late 1940s. By 2004, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment was spend­ing $7,100 per cap­ita, nearly 55 times more than was spent per cap­ita in the 1910s, the Fed study said.

That trend has res­isted even past GOP ef­forts to stop it, un­der Ron­ald Re­agan and former House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich, and it sped up un­der both George W. Bush and Obama, one of the Fed study’s au­thors, Rus­sell Rhine, an eco­nom­ist at St. Mary’s Col­lege of Mary­land, said in an in­ter­view.  “Whenev­er new pro­grams get en­acted, they don’t go away, and that is why this whole tea party back­lash against Obama­care is so strong.” It’s also why gov­ern­ment-by-crisis will prob­ably con­tin­ue, per­haps even be­come something of a new nor­mal. The fear of the con­ser­vat­ive right is what it has been for some time: that the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment will simply find a way to ac­com­mod­ate this growth, without really fight­ing it. As Nath­an Mehrens, the head of Amer­ic­ans for Lim­ited Gov­ern­ment — a tea-party-af­fil­i­ated group — puts it:  “The typ­ic­al Re­pub­lic­an re­sponse is to say, ‘We have good man­agers. We can make it work, tweak it around the edges, make it more ef­fi­cient.’ I just don’t think that’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

And des­pite the grow­ing pub­lic back­lash against the shut­down — with more Amer­ic­ans blam­ing Re­pub­lic­ans than the pres­id­ent — tea party liber­tari­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing a thrill­ing fris­son of what their ideal world of much less gov­ern­ment might look like. “Eighty-three per­cent of the gov­ern­ment is still up and run­ning. The por­tions deemed non-es­sen­tial do make you won­der what is the prop­er size of gov­ern­ment,” says Jenny Beth Mar­tin, the Geor­gia-based co-founder of Tea Party Pat­ri­ots. Mar­tin in­sists she nev­er wanted the gov­ern­ment to shut down, and agrees that “the en­tire coun­try is tired of this brinks­man­ship. We need more sta­bil­ity in the gov­ern­ment.” But she adds: “The only way to take ac­tion is through brinks­man­ship.”

And so the only reas­on­able re­sponse of Obama — or some proxy, like Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id — is to pluck something from out of the box, like a re­new­al of the dis­cus­sion on a bal­anced budget strategy, or some con­ces­sion on spend­ing levels only tan­gen­tially or un­re­lated to Obama­care, and to of­fer it up to Boehner. Obama is right to be wary of a “grand bar­gain,” since Boehner walked away from one be­fore when his right-wing mas­ters yanked the leash. But des­pite the speak­er’s re­por­ted pledge to avoid a debt de­fault, he will con­tin­ue to bow to his tea party bosses at least through the 2014 elec­tion. And that means he will need a face-sav­ing way out of the cur­rent game of chick­en over a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion and the debt lim­it. lt will go on longer, prob­ably right up against the Oct. 17 dead­line. But one way or an­oth­er, Obama’s go­ing to have to blink. 

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