The US now finds itself in a strange and unfortunate situation where the Republican controlled House of Representatives has forced a shutdown of the federal government, primarily because the right wing zealots in that legislature are angry about a health care reform bill that is going into effect this week. It has been pointed out by people in both parties that this bill was passed legally and that the 2012 election was the time to have a referendum on Obamacare, as the Republicans are foolishly calling it. If 2012 was a referendum on Obamacare and indeed on President Obama himself, it is pretty clear that the President and his signature legislative accomplishment passed that referendum. The irony that some Republicans are shutting down the government because they are angry about a reform that is, at its core, a Republican one, has been missed by many, but is still worth noting.
The use of the word Obamacare for the health care reform has been a Republican strategy for several years, but it is one that will likely backfire. Imagine if Social Security were known as Rooseveltcare, or if Medicare were known as Johnsoncare. Either of those would have been great for the Democratic Party as it would have linked a Democratic president with a popular reform. This could well happen ten years or so from now. If every time somebody with an pre-existing condition is able to get coverage they thank Obamacare, it will be very good for the Democratic brand, as well as the legacy of President Obama. This is lost on a Republican block in the House that seems more concerned with trying to outdo itself with gratuitously attacking the president than with governing or thinking about the future and what is best for the country.
The government shutdown itself is an embarrassment to the US and will damage our increasingly fragile credibility. It also means that key government services and institutions will not be accessible for ordinary Americans. The news about furloughs and government bureaucrats not getting paid obscures the genuine suffering this will cause for government employees as well as those who need help from the government. Needless to say, a government shutdown does not help American business compete in a world that is increasingly global and competitive.
The precedent this shutdown sets, however, is even worse and may well be the most damaging aspect of this shutdown. By refusing to continue to fund the US government because of, essentially, losing a vote in congress in 2010 and then an election in 2012, the Republican Party has made it clear getting their way, even after their views have been shown to be the minority both in congress and the electorate, is more important than anything else. Right wing apologists will assert that the Tea Party faction of the party is doing this for the good of the country, but that is a position that is no longer tenable. Arguing that cutting off essential services, providing more evidence that the US in no longer a good credit risk and potentially not a great place to do business and bringing the government to a standstill over a settled piece of legislation is an indefensible position.
This shutdown could end soon, but the possibility of a shutdown will be present in all future debates in Washington to a much greater extent than it is today. A shutdown of the federal government should be an extreme measure to be used only under dire circumstances not as a reaction to being on the losing side of a piece of legislation, twice. However, that is exactly the precedent the Republicans have set. If a Republican wins in 2016, will the Democrats in congress shut down the government if that president further deregulates the finance industry? That is not how government should function, but that is now a much more legitimate way for Democrats in congress to think than was the case a month ago.
The more serious possibility is that the Republicans will continue to use this as a tactic throughout the rest of Obama's presidency and beyond. There is nothing wrong with seeking to thwart a president of the other party. On the contrary, that dynamic is part of the checks and balances that make the country, and our democracy, strong. However, threatening to shut down the government crosses a boundary that should be obvious to most. The good thing about democracy is that there is always another election, another bill or another legislative battle, but this only works when both sides are able to accept defeat when they experience it. Recent Republican actions have made it clear that too many in that party are unwilling to accept defeat and plan for the next fight. The Republican Party is like that annoying kid many of us knew growing up who would threaten to take his ball and bat home if he does not get to pitch and bat cleanup. For Republicans this is now a guiding principle of policy making not just the petulant and destructive behavior of a spoiled child.