Of course, Washington D.C. is consumed by shutdown madness. It’s all we can talk about in this federal town because, really, there isn’t much else to talk about. It’s kind of like Detroit not manufacturing cars, or Hollywood during an actors’ strike. Governance is what we do, imperfectly perhaps, but it’s our thing.
The shutdown seems kind of crazy and arguably it is crazy. How this happened is well known. It amounts to Democrats staying home during the 2010 election, in retrospect a fatal mistake. It put those with an animus to vote to come out, and we ended up with the Tea Party controlling the House. The Tea Party can now get Speaker John Boehner to dance on a dais like an elephant at a circus. What was lost were legislators that were willing to compromise. That turns out to be a huge problem with no real solution.
The current shutdown is a classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. It’s unclear what it will take to fund the government again. Forces should favor the Democrats as they control both the Senate and the White House but of course nothing is guaranteed because Republicans in the House, at least those holding the leash around Speaker Boehner’s neck, seem content to burn the house down if necessary to get their way. Their strategy for winning this battle was summed up by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX): “Don’t blink”. Only of course either someone has to blink or there has to be genuine compromise. For a change it appears that Democrats don’t intend to blink. Time will tell if it is true, but it’s understandable that Republicans figure Democrats, or at least President Obama, will blink in time. After all, he has in the past and past behavior is a reasonable predictor of future actions.
Some things are crystal clear: Republicans are very angry, with Democrats in general of course, but with President Obama in particular. Their rage is focused on the “Obamacare”, i.e. the Affordable Care Act, which they claim was enacted without bipartisan support. The latter point is true, but it’s not like Democrats did not do a lot of reaching out. A bipartisan “gang” in the Senate worked seven months on a bipartisan bill, but Republicans got cold feet. As I documented, President Obama went out of his way to get input from Republicans when health care reform started. He was icily spurned. Republicans were not serious players in this negotiation because they did not want health care reform. They still don’t. There is not even an alternative plan to the ACA that enjoys widespread Republican support.
What is fueling this anger? Is it really President Obama and his mixed race? Is it really that people they don’t like may get to live longer because they will be able to afford some health insurance? How do you reach political compromise when the very idea is anathema to Republicans?
I believe that understanding the true source of their anger may help affect a positive solution. In my opinion, Marcos Moulitsas, owner of DailyKos.com, inadvertently uncovered the real animus in this word cloud. A word cloud is a list of words that come up frequently in discussions with Republicans. Some words come up a lot including “worried”, “concerned”, “scared”, “anxious”, “nervous” and “discouraged”. To understand Republicans, you have to focus on these core emotions. They are engaged in an exercise in bravado which points out they understand the underlying truth: their way of life is dying, probably for good, which means they are desperate. They hold on to some political power via governorships, state legislators and in the House via gerrymandering, but they know it can’t last, so they must hold onto it as long as possible.
Conservative are value programmed to resist change. They are like a dog backed into a corner, hissing and snarling at anything that approaches and ready to lunge forward and bite to prove their sincerity, while secretly hoping they don’t have to because they know their bark is their power, not their bite. The proof is already out there in polls that show Republicans are getting disproportionate blame for the shutdown. They are setting their party up for a more rapid decline than necessary in the 2014 elections. Their current approach is giving Karl Rove cold sweats, as the house of cards he constructed in the late 1990s appears to be swaying.
Arguably Democrats should use this opportunity to kill the sad spectacle that is today’s Republican Party. Benign neglect is not a bad strategy either. As I noted before, demographics will be the Republican Party’s undoing. Like it or not, the country is becoming colored and more tolerant. Attempts to restrict access to voters they don’t like may win a battle or two, but this is ultimately a war that they cannot win and keep their values too. They really have just two choices: transform their party into something else that can attract a lot of women and independents, or prepare to go the way of the Whig Party. Ironically, the Republican Party was forged from the remnants of the Whig Party. What we are seeing taking place in the House is not so much a battle between Republicans and Democrats, but a nasty intra-party Republican fight. As John Boehner goes, so goes the Republican Party, but the party is doomed to lose in the end. There simply are not enough Republicans to hold this party together much longer. This dike is about to burst.
Here’s what an enlightened Democratic Party could do: create safe zones for Republicans to be Republicans. The real animus against the Affordable Care Act is because it is a federal mandate: red states have to follow this law they loathe and which pushes all their panic buttons as well. It’s about being forced to adhere to someone else’s values. So here’s one compromise this Democrat would be willing to make on the Affordable Care Act: let red states opt out of the ACA altogether if they want, providing they will allow those states that do want the ACA to have it. This is not a “my way or the highway” solution, but “you can do things that fit your state’s culture, and blue states have the same privilege.” Allow states to opt in or opt out. The price of this accommodation: no changes to this rule until at least 2020, to give the ACA time to work.
This sounds like surrender but I am not worried. Yes, I would like to see the uninsured in red states get health insurance like the rest of us. But I am not worried that red states would opt out of the ACA for long. The experience in blue states will teach citizens of red states that there is nothing to fear. They will soon learn that the lack of containment of health care costs will work to their state’s disadvantage. Soon, they will choose to opt in. They will find, hey, that money from the federal government to subsidize the care of our poor citizens is a good thing. But they cannot come to this conclusion until their ideological fever fades.
It will work the same as it is happening now with gay marriage. The values of this country are changing to be more progressive, but that doesn’t mean the future shock underway will happen gracefully. Right now we are building a huge national bonfire of threats and rhetoric. Opposing forces are screaming at each other from opposite sides of the fire. We need to put the fire out and to let tempers cool. With a little time I believe that common sense will return.
As for red states, they too are becoming colored and will become more progressive as well. They cannot change their demographic trends either. Change will happen but it will probably happen better if it happens gradually in these states. Resentment builds a new bonfire that could burn across generations. There are lots of feelings to process and this will take time. This Republican frog needs to be boiled slowly.
Moreover, our nation needs healing. It does not need more polarization. Enlightened Democrats need to respect these feelings through local accommodation if possible. These demographic changes underway do not have to be 8 on the Richter Scale. Done the right way, they can be minor trembles instead. In the long run, this approach is a better way to heal our polarized nation.