Unless there’s some kind of Aaron Sorkin-penned Beltway deus-ex-machina that strikes the Capitol between now and midnight tonight, a good deal of the government will be closed for business Tuesday morning. Lights out at the national park visitors centers, the museums on the Mall, and a lot of people deemed “non-essential” to the safety and welfare of the people and the national security will be on unpaid leave. (There’s always some kind of discussion on cable TV about what the difference is between “essential” personnel and those that aren’t in government jobs, but what it means is that people could die or be harmed if certain workers such as meat inspectors, air traffic controllers, and law enforcement didn’t show up for work. The “non-essential” ones are the ones who provide services that make us take certain things for granted, such as tax form review and educational grants management.)
The chances of the miracle are highly unlikely. On the one side you have the Republicans in the form of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his minority of the minority — at least in the Senate — forcing a minority in the majority in the House to stop up the government over a law that was passed over three years ago, has already passed muster in the Supreme Court, and was reaffirmed by the electorate in last year’s election when the voters had a chance to elect someone who vowed to repeal it (even though that candidate made his political fortune as governor of Massachusetts by passing the same bill in his state). On the other side you have a White House and the Democrats who, at long last, refuse to negotiate with terrorists. It’s easier for Barack Obama to pick up the phone and have a chat with the president of Iran, a nation that has despised us for over thirty years, than it is to get the GOP to put down the gun and talk.
The reasons the Republicans are against the healthcare law are as varied as the people who are against it: it raises taxes on the rich; it provides healthcare for poor people who don’t deserve it because they are too lazy to get a job that provides health insurance; it’s socialism to require private insurers to cover pre-existing conditions; and worst of all, it was proposed and promoted and passed by Barack Obama, who isn’t really an American anyway, and it might actually work. Not one of those reasons is based on reason, and therefore the resistance to giving in and letting the law take effect is intractable.
We are going to be hearing a lot of false equivalency — “both sides do it” — from the Very Serious People in the next 24 to 48 hours — bet on Mark Halperin and Cokie Roberts to lead that charge — and you’re going to see a lot of thoughtful head nodding over it. Except no one can name the last time the Democrats brought the country’s daily operation to a halt over a law that was already passed. That’s because it’s never happened. The Republicans, however, have done it time and again, enough that it’s become an automatic response for everything they don’t like. Can’t agree on a budget? Shut it down. Opposed to raising the debt ceiling? Shut it down. (Under that rule, they should have done it under Ronald Reagan eighteen times, but that’s different, somehow.) Don’t like being forced to exit Air Force One from the back door? Shut it down. Don’t like having one of Those People in the Oval Office? Shut it down. The Democrats, for all their faults, never held the full faith and credit of the government hostage. It’s not that they’re too weak or disorganized to do it. It’s that they’re not insane.
The best thing for the Republicans is that even if they do drag out this shutdown for a week, two weeks, or however long it takes to work out a deal, they won’t face any kind of punishment for it. They know that even when they have behaved badly — even to the point of felony — the electorate either forgets it or ignores it at the ballot box. By any sense of justice, the Republicans should have been marginalized as a political party after Watergate, but all it took was two election cycles to regenerate them with Ronald Reagan. Then after the overwhelming win of Bill Clinton and the rejection of the extension of the Reagan presidency in the form of the first President Bush in 1992, they roared back with Newt Gingrich and his band of merry adulterers and hypocrites. And on and on into the new century with Bush II and the rise of the Tea Party, a group too cowardly to acknowledge their racism but still capable of scaring the foolish and the weak with it. Odds are that a year from now this crisis point will be as distant a memory as the final episode of Breaking Bad and the Congress will be re-elected with a Republican majority again. They know that the electorate is the great enabler; they’re counting on it.
So here we go again. We’re going to see clips of school children standing outside the doors of the Smithsonian and the National Archives staring at the CLOSED signs, hear the Village People complain about the sour mood in Washington that makes cocktail party chatter so forced, and the Republicans blaming the Democrats for the whole mess because they wouldn’t give in to their at-gunpoint demands: “Look what you made me do.”
Lost in all of this is the simple fact that the government has to run. Schools have to open, traffic lights have to work, planes have to fly, food has to be tested, and even Social Security checks have to be sent out. Ted Cruz can talk for 21 hours more for all anyone cares, but the work has to be done, and the people of this country have to know that no matter what he says or does, the job of providing services to the people is what it is all about. Depriving the country of them over an argument that was settled long before he became a senator — and even long before he was born — does more damage to the full faith and credit of the United States than a downgraded credit rating.