Turning the tap off - what now?

By Peter Foster

The decision by the Tea Party to 'shut down' the Government displays America's crisis of confidence, writes Peter Foster.

As dawn broke over Washington yesterday, hours after Congress decided to shut down the US government for the first time in 17 years, it was at least partially comforting to hear the distant rumble of a jet as it began its descent along the Potomac River into Reagan National Airport.

For all the doom-laden headlines, the wheels of America were still turning; indeed, with the absence of parking wardens and so many other US federal government workers on unpaid leave, the rush-hour traffic in Washington DC was flowing marginally better than normal. It was bad luck, of course, if you were hoping to visit the Smithsonian or the Lincoln Memorial - but upsetting the tourists is the least of America's problems at the moment.

As is so often the case, the real America - the small businesses, the underfunded schools and the hard-pressed middle classes - kept on trucking while the US Congress and the broader political system that underpins it ground ignominiously to a halt.

To which it is tempting to say, a plague on both their Houses - or the "House of Turds", as New York's Daily News put it on a front page that carried a picture of the Republican Speaker John Boehner. But in this particular case, it is the Republicans who must shoulder the lion's share of the blame.

The Congressional procedural ping-pong, with its "cloture" motions (the only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill, thereby overcoming a filibuster) and "continuing resolutions", sounds complicated, but what happened up on Capitol Hill was actually very simple.

A small cabal of hardcore, anti-government "Tea Party" Republicans insisted on using a bill for the funding of the US Government - which pays for spending already agreed by both sides - to demand Obama dismantle or delay parts of his health-care reforms, otherwise known as "Obamacare".

Unsurprisingly, Obama said "no". Point blank. That sounds intransigent, but to see how unreasonable the Tea Party was being, you need only put the boot on the other foot. Imagine if Republicans had passed a funding bill, but Obama had refused to sign it unless they attached concessions on, say, gun control or immigration reform.

By all means, Obama argues, let's have a discussion about government spending levels, about Obamacare, or a "grand bargain" on unsustainable welfare entitlements, but it cannot take place with the entire workings of the US Government being held hostage.

The first opinion polls yesterday showed that the US public fundamentally agrees with this stand. A survey by Quinnipiac University showed that Americans opposed using a government shutdown to block implementation of Obamacare by 72 per cent to 22 per cent, even though a majority of Americans does not approve of the legislation itself.

Two further things tell you that the Grand Old Party's extreme wing - known without affection as "the Taleban" by Republican moderates - is on the wrong side of the tactical argument.

First, there is Obama's new-found confidence in the presidential bully pulpit. After the dithering over Syria and his failure to win on gun control and immigration, his personal approval numbers are at all-time lows. Now he is free to decry the recklessness of a group of ideologues who represent just over 10 per cent of the total members of Congress, and about 20 per cent of public opinion, secure in the knowledge that the polls show America broadly agrees with him.

Second, the President's efforts to make that argument are assisted immeasurably by the fact that large swaths of the Congressional Republican Party itself also agree with him.

The party leadership is absolutely livid with the Tea Party caucus - not for opposing Obamacare (all Republicans do that), not for the zeal in seeking to rein in government spending (again, that's a party-wide goal), but for picking a fight they cannot possibly win.

The senselessness of the tactics was epitomised in the 21-hour speech delivered last week by Ted Cruz, the Senator from Texas who is the darling of the Tea Party. Normally moderate Republican colleagues were reduced to yelling at Cruz for making an utterly selfish speech that achieved nothing beyond Cruz's self-aggrandisement, since Senate rules had rendered the filibuster redundant.

The Republican leadership well remembers what happened in 1996, when the equally bombastic Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, forced a shutdown and Bill Clinton - his approval numbers also in the doldrums - gathered momentum that saw him easily winning that year's general election. They do not want history to repeat itself.

But that is of no matter to the Tea Party caucus. Their actions have been called "suicide" or "kamikaze" politics, which is strong language but captures the nihilist mindset that underlies their strategy and the sheer depth of the systemic problem now facing American politics. Historians are reaching back to the stalemated Congresses of the 1880s and 1890s to find an era of equivalent nastiness and futility.

As one senior member of the Republican leadership said, the Tea Party and its supporters are positively rejoicing at the shutdown. They have demonstrated "spine and stomach for a fight", he says, and fired up their fundraising base ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections, where low turnouts mean narrow sectional interest groups can always punch above their weight.

The Tea Party candidates in their gerrymandered Congressional districts stand to lose nothing personally as a result of this stunt - indeed, their margins of victory will almost certainly increase - and are unmoved by warnings from senior Republicans, who fear the damage this episode will cause to the party's national fortunes in 2016.

Internally, the senior figure added, Republican strategists are preparing to stand their ground for a week, or two, even as they accept that eventually they will have to capitulate and pass a no-strings-attached "continuing resolution" (legislation used to fund government agencies if a formal appropriations bill has not been made law by the end of the fiscal year). The climbdown will be washed down with complaints about the misrepresentations of the "mainstream media" and stories of distraught tourists, laid-off workers and the ceremonial axing of the "panda-cam" at the National Zoo.

"After this has gone long enough, you start to push them [the Tea Party caucus] into a very small corner of craziness, and frankly that's a very healthy thing," he says. "You say, you've made your point, you can't go on, you tried your best, and we all move on."

The question anyone outside these narrow partisan battles will ask is, "move on" to what? Most likely to more showdowns as a significant part of the Republican Party continues to put the cathartic pleasures of tearing the House down above the hard, tedious business of making it work. Democrats are not blameless, but those who believe that conservative ideas - lower taxes, less regulation, more emphasis on self-reliance - hold the key to America's future are not served by a level of political debate that much of the time does not rise above inchoate rage at the fact that society is changing and the economic "Golden Age" that followed World War II is well and truly over.

Instead of dealing with the art of the possible, a wing of the Republican Party seems happy to play fantasy politics, as typified in the Ryan budget, proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan this year, which included unworkable cuts to public spending, such as a 21 per cent cut to the operating budget of the train operator Amtrak. Confronted by the reality of those cuts to infrastructure and other programmes, Republicans were unable to pass even their own budget.

If Republicans want to challenge Democrat ideas for solving America's problems - too much unaffordable entitlement spending and a gradual subversion of the ingenuity and self-reliance that built modern America - there has to be an engagement and a willingness to fight the real policy battles line by line, idea by idea.

Out in America's state capitols, where Republicans hold 30 out of 50 governorships, it is possible to point to some progress, but at the national level it seems there is only empty, fruitless grandstanding. Perhaps this latest debacle will provide the sentinel moment when the American public jointly rises up in anger and simply demands better, more realistic problem-solving, enabling government. But we shouldn't bet on it. When choices are truly hard, raging, however infantile, is the all-too easy way out.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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