Don’t forget what the shutdown was really about. Either by accident or design, the media framed the most recent shutdown of the federal government as a blame game. Who was to blame for this embarrassing situation? Was it Democrats or Republicans? President Obama or Speaker of the House John Boehner? Was it freshman Senator Ted Cruz? All of the above? This narrative, however, is a useless diversion from the backstory. The central question is not who or what precipitated this mess. It’s why.
The government shutdown was not about the $16 trillion federal deficit. It was not about out-of-control government spending. It was not about taxes. It was not about abortion. It was not about stimulus. It was not about food stamps or welfare or bailouts or birth certificates or gun control or regulations. It was not even about the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare.” The most recent shutdown of the federal government was about a factional hatred of Barack Obama. It was about Obama’s legacy.
For the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama had the benefit of something that every president wants, a House and a Senate controlled by his own party. And in those two years, Congress enacted legislation of significant import. Among other things, Congress expanded hate crimes protections, cracked down on predatory for-profit colleges, invested heavily in renewable technology, passed credit card reform, kicked banks out of the federal student loan program and expanded Pell Grant spending, repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” improved the food safety system, turned around the U.S. auto industry, passed Wall Street reform, passed the stimulus, expanded health coverage for children, and, of course, passed the Affordable Care Act.
But then came the 2010 midterm elections. The Republican Party took back the House of Representatives in a win of historic scope. Republicans needed to claim 39 Democratic seats to retake the House that year. They won more than 60, surpassing the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. Losses for the Democratic majority ranged from vulnerable freshmen like Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia to popular Democratic veterans like 14-term House Budget chair Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina.
Since their 2010 resurgence, Republicans have had an undisguised strategy to freeze the 113th Congress, paralyze the normal legislative process, marshall the federal government from manufactured fiscal crisis to manufactured fiscal crisis in order to compel Congress to accept a conservative policy agenda, and roll back the first-term legislative accomplishments of the nations first black president.
Indeed, since John Boehner became Speaker of the House, Congress has done virtually nothing of any significance. The major pieces of legislation passed by Congress, like the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 and the Hurricane Sandy relief bill, were passed with overwhelming Democratic support over Republican protest and obstructionism. And while there have been opportunities to enact sweeping changes to our immigration policy and reasonable restrictions on the purchase of firearms, Republicans have repeatedly expressed their unwillingness to govern. Indeed, in July, House Speaker John Boehner explained that he believes Congress should be judged by the number of laws it manages to repeal, not the amount of new legislation it passes. “We should not be judged by how many new laws we create,” Boehner said, “we ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that the 113th Congress is on pace to be the least productive in modern history. The one thing Republicans have been remarkably adept at doing, however, is voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act – which it has done over 40 times. It is a completely fruitless and pointless endeavor. But over the past three weeks, America has born witness to how committed Republicans are to achieving this goal, the United States economy and full faith and credit be damned.
“The American people don’t want the government shut down, and they don’t want Obamacare,” Speaker John Boehner told supporters on September 20 to raucous applause, moments after the House Republicans voted to make funding the federal government contingent on defunding health care reforms. “The House has listened to the American people. Now it’s time for the United States Senate to listen to them as well.”
Lest Republicans forget, the Affordable Care Act was a completely bipartisan effort that passed both the House and Senate in 2010, subsequently was judged to be constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, and was one of the key debate issues prior to and during the 2012 election. And furthermore, a correct reading of poll numbers shows fewer opposed to the Affordable Care Act than thought. The most recent Kaiser Health Tracking Poll, for example, shows that 33 percent of Americans found the law favorable, 43 percent found it unfavorable, and 17 percent were unsure or did not give an opinion. At first glance, this poll seems to support Republican position, but a closer look at the faction that disapproved of the law reveals something much more complicated: 33 percent said the law went too far, 7 percent said the law did not go far enough, and 3 percent could not say either way. Thus, support for the law and opposition to it are much more even: 36 percent oppose the law and 40 percent are in support of some form of federal health care transformation.
But, again, this was never about Obamacare. As Andrew Sullivan explained, “My rule of thumb is pretty simple: whenever you hear a quote about Obamacare, it’s more illuminating to remove the ‘care’ part.”
While the Affordable Care Act is, by any measure, a moderate reform of the American health insurance industry that is catered to private interests and deeply rooted in conservative thinking (namely, personal responsibility), it represents an inching toward a more liberal America. And it is a history-making biggie. The Affordable Care Act makes visible changes to the healthcare industry that could fundamentally change the relationship between working Americans and their government, right up there with now decades old legislation that put into place Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and Medicare. As such, the Affordable Care Act likely will be the most important part of Obama’s legacy.
For that reason alone, a handful of right-wing legislators just can’t stand it.
In the most recent government shutdown, the Republican Party adopted a strategy that urged us to explicitly pull out of a shared contract of governance. It is difficult to imagine that any group of people could be so committed to a proposition that it would be willing, even eager, to hijack the democratic process, shut down the federal government, repudiate the nation’s debts, and throw the world financial system into chaos just to make its continuing displeasure known. When a toddler does that, we call it a tantrum. When the elderly do it, we attribute senility. But what do you call it when a politician does it?
We are living in a dangerous political moment. One in which a dangerous faction of the Republican Party has fully committed itself to the destruction of the entire Obama administration, with the goal of rendering Barack Obama a historical footnote. It is tempting to call this unserious bluster. But it is serious. The Affordable Care Act was the symptom of the government shutdown. Not the cause.
What many of us found in Barack Obama was a post-ideological president, a symbol of change that could repair the enormous damage done by the Bush-Cheney administration. What the Right saw was a symbol of change they could not understand. One that frightened them. And one that they continue to seek refuge from.