6 lessons of the government shutdown

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo News
National Park workers remove barricade at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as it reopens to the public in Washington
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National Park workers remove a barricade at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as it reopens to the public in Washington October 17, 2013. The White House moved quickly early on Thursday to get the U.S. government back up and running after a 16-day shutdown, directing hundreds of thousands of workers to return to work. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

These days, D.C. has come to stand for Dysfunction Central.

As the government shutdown that began Tuesday moves into its first weekend, outrage and derisive jokes have given way to a depressed acceptance. This is what political life in 2013 has become. This is the inevitable result when most of the essential jobs in Washington involve the manufacture of partisan talking points.

Still, the first days of Shutdown October have taught us some things about politics. So here are thoughts, partly inspired by candid off-the-record interviews with key Republicans, to tide you through the coming days.

The Art of War: Everyone saw this one coming — that the House Republicans would march into battle waving their “No Obamacare Ever” banners and meet fierce resistance from the White House. What stuns many Republicans is that the war was launched with no backup plan, no strategy, no sense of “then what?”

Two weeks before the government shutdown, the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page warned of the folly of the Republican House threatening “to crash their Zeros into the aircraft carrier of Obamacare.” As the Journal editorial writers, whom no one would accuse of excessive sympathy for Obama, put it, “Kamikaze missions rarely turn out well, least of all for the pilots.”

Searching for the Good News: House Speaker John Boehner may never have planned it like this, but the inadvertent effect of the government shutdown could be to reacquaint the GOP refuseniks with something resembling political reality. The logic, which I heard from prominent GOP strategists, is that since the Republican House felt compelled to go over the cliff on a budgetary issue, it is far safer to do it on funding the government than on raising the debt ceiling when the government runs out of borrowing power on Oct. 17.

Yes, the government shutdown is embarrassing. (The latest cover of the British newsmagazine the Economist has the headline, “No way to run a country.”) But the nation can endure a temporary halt in many government functions, even vital ones like cancer research. In contrast, not raising the federal debt ceiling would send the U.S. government into default — and, beyond the international humiliation, that would mean higher borrowing costs for the Treasury for decades to come.

Sooner or later, the most noncompromising faction of the House Republicans will begin to realize that winning a majority of Fox News viewers is different from winning a majority of the nation’s voters. By supporting this outburst of conservative intensity on the government shutdown, Boehner may have given himself room to work with the Democrats to make sure than the debt ceiling is raised in time.

Misunderstanding the GOP Revolution: The standard interpretation of the 2010 Republican takeover of the House was that frustration with Obama over the economy and health care brought in a wave of exceptionally conservative tea party legislators. But the mistake was to focus on the right-wing ideology of these new House Republicans rather than to highlight their outsider disdain for legislating.

It is easy to hold very conservative views on the budget and taxation without disdaining all compromise on all matters at all times. The crux of Boehner’s problem with the right flank of House Republicans is their collective failure to understand that (cue the Rolling Stones) you can’t always get what you want.

Primary Colors: Many House Republicans understand that a government shutdown and a possible default on the national debt is bad for business, bad for jobs and bad for profits. But these main-street Republicans also live in mortal terror that any flicker of compromise will prompt a full-funded tea party challenge in the 2014 primaries.

But what if a few tea party zealots faced 2014 primary opposition from GOP centrists? That is a topic, according to GOP insiders, that is being quietly discussed in Washington among Republican Super PACs and other major funders.

The first signs of this trend have already emerged. According to the Detroit News, two House Republicans from Michigan, Reps. Justin Amash and Kerry Bentivolio, have drawn potentially well-funded 2014 primary foes from the business community. Amash, in particular, is a libertarian firebrand — and his opponent, Brian Ellis, enters the race with enthusiastic backing from the Grand Rapids financial community.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the Michigan challengers will be able to prevail in low-turnout primaries than often reward ideological intensity over prudent moderation. But just the existence of these candidates suggests that there may suddenly be political cross-pressures on the just-say-no wing of House Republicans.

The Limits of Self-Interest: Few novelists are as popular among the tea party crowd as Ayn Rand, that passionate apostle of enlightened selfishness. But there is a downside to applying her free-market principles (everyone acting in their own self-interest creates a robust economy) to congressional politics.

A House member from a safe GOP district can easily decide that his or her political future depends on not stirring up charges that they are Republicans in Name Only, a moral failing that brings with it the dread acronym RINO. But if too many Republicans follow that me-first credo, the GOP’s image is marred with swing voters.

And that is what is happening nationally right now as the topic has shifted from the glitches with the rollout of Obamacare (a potentially fruitful GOP issue) to the extremism of the government shutdown (not the Republican Party’s finest moment).

Why Can’t They Run the Government Like a Business?

That’s long been a favorite political trope, especially for Republicans. But the truth is that no business would put up with anything like the current scorched-earth battle between the CEO (Barack Obama) and a rump faction of the board of directors (the Republican House).

And the shutdown is only the latest example of the never-in-the-private-sector constrains on the federal government. Imagine a business that is unable to carry out long-term planning; that has been forced to arbitrarily slash every spending category regardless of priority; and that, even if it resumes operations this month, may have to endure another irrational shutdown before the end of the year.

The problem is not with the federal workforce or with the idea of a public sector operating outside the profit motive. Rather, the impasse between the president and Congress has created impossible working conditions with no end in sight.

So the next time a veteran’s pension check arrives in the right bank account, a doctor’s bill gets paid by Medicare or an FBI agent cracks a case, pause for a moment to reflect on what has just occurred. Things still work in government even if political blood feuds make it impossible for it to be run like a business.

In the great 1939 Ernst Lubitsch comedy “Ninotchka,” Greta Garbo plays a Soviet commissar visiting Paris. Discussing the purges, Garbo says, “There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

Unless John Boehner and Company manage to take the House back from the brink in the coming days, it may be necessary to update Garbo’s line to fit the GOP quest for ideology purity: “There are going to be fewer but better Republicans.”

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