One image perfectly captured the meaning of the absurd, irrational and wholly unnecessary confrontation over whether to shut down the federal government on the basis of remarkably small differences on budget numbers and policy.
During a tea party rally near the Capitol last Wednesday — “rally” is generous for a gathering of a few hundred people — Rep. Mike Pence, the Republican fire-eater from Indiana, declared that if Senate Democrats refused to accept “a modest down payment on fiscal discipline and reform, I say, ‘Shut it down!’”
And the crowd erupted, lustily and joyfully: “Shut it down! Shut it down!”
What became clear as the shouting persisted is that the government of the most powerful country in the world was being held hostage by a band of fanatics who (1) represent a very small proportion of our population; (2) hate government so much that they relished the idea of closing its doors, no matter the cost; and (3) are unwilling to acknowledge that a democratic election produced a divided government and that compromise is the only way forward.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, DN. Y., caused a minor stir when he was overheard giving talking points to fellow Democrats urging them to characterize the Republican approach as “extreme” or “extremist.” But the embarrassment to Schumer was inconsequential because his point was ratified by reality. House Speaker John Boehner’s challenge throughout the episode was the difficulty of dealing with forces inside the Republican Party that genuinely are extreme.
A serious country cannot stay serious for long if it organizes its political life this way. Threatening to shut down the entire government over a difference of a few billion dollars in a total budget of close to $4 trillion was ridiculous. Equally preposterous was using a shutdown to alter Planned Parenthood’s role in our health care system, or to intimidate the president into undercutting environmental protections.
Boehner himself seemed to know this. “We control one-half of one-third of the government here,” he has said regularly. (I’d argue that Republicans also have effective control of the Supreme Court, but leave this aside.)
Boehner has reason to feel good about his success in pushing the president and his party into far bigger concessions than anyone could have expected. But the speaker had no choice but to bring the country to the brink because he knew that the shut-it-down crowd saw closing the federal government not simply as a tactic but as a positive good.
Yes, Democrats opened the way to this ludicrous drama by failing to pass a budget for this fiscal year when they held both houses of Congress. But it’s also true that the abuse of the filibuster in the Senate has made governance excruciating by turning once routine matters into the objects of intense partisan warfare. Again, it’s a nonsensical way to run a government.
We need to face up to what’s happening: A right-wing minority of the Republican Party has a far greater influence on the governing process than its share of the electorate would justify because its members turn out in large numbers in Republican primaries.
Recall the Republican Senate primary in Delaware last year: When a candidate as unqualified as Christine O’Donnell can defeat Mike Castle, who was one of the most respected members of the House, every Republican — mainstream conservatives as well as the few moderates left standing — has reason to feel terrified. That terror is haunting the halls of Congress.
Underlying this is a complete loss of respect for democratic government itself and an utter lack of appreciation for what a miracle self-rule is. If government is turned into something evil, then no one has any obligation to stewardship over our institutions. Recklessness in pursuit of a few minor political victories becomes a virtue. Indifference to those who are served by or work in government becomes a badge of honor.
In those shouts of “Shut it down,” the “it” drips with contempt. We cheer when we shut down drug dens or terrorist havens. There should be no glee over shutting down our government.
Boehner doesn’t feel this way about our institutions, but he has an obligation to take the political risk of facing down those who do. And for President Obama, it’s no longer good enough to be seen as the school principal scolding competing gangs. He needs the courage to defend the government he leads.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. ©2011 Washington Post Writers