Shut Down Reflections

Why Now? 

The “non-essential” federal government is shut down, throwing more than 700,000 public employees out of work, for a number of interrelated reasons. For more than four years now, the radical right Republican Party – falsely described as conservative – and its vast propaganda machine (including FOX News and the ubiquitous right Republican AM talk radio network) has been stoking paranoia and delusion among its disproportionately white, rural, evangelical, and small-proprietary base about the supposedly totalitarian and leftist danger of the Democrats’ health care reform. Still drunk on George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove’s dated success in winning and ruling by crises both real (September 11, 2011, the Supreme Court’s midnight intervention in the statistically tied 2000 presidential election) and manufactured (Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” the supposed coming bankruptcy of Social Security, and more), the Teapublican political and media system has whipped its ugly and racist base into a froth about “socialist” Barack Obama’s “big government health care takeover.” Along the way it has maintained a steady drumbeat of distortion about the purported grave dangers of government spending and debt, sources of the constantly bemoaned deficit. 

Never mind that “Obamacare” (the Affordable Care Act [ACA], passed in early 2010) has been approved by the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court. Or that it was carefully designed to advance corporate and financial America’s preference for “market solutions” over and against a public, social-democratic policy that would de-commodify health care and establish decent medical coverage as a basic government-mandated human right. 

Never mind that Republicans today and since the Reagan era couldn’t care less about deficits except in finding them useful as a weapon in their ongoing radical campaign to eliminate social programs for the poor and to wipe out the last remnants of a social, democratic, welfare, and regulatory state in the U.S. Their lack of interest in sound public finance is clear enough from their constant call for deep tax cuts on the wealthy few and their investments and corporations – a remarkable demand in a nation where the richest 400 people possess as much total wealth as the bottom half of the entire population. 

And never mind that most Americans have long supported big government health care as a human right and think that jobs, not the deficit, is the nation’s leading economic problem and that government spending should be increased to create more jobs (see Paul Street, “No Functioning Democracy,” Z Magazine, September 2013, read online at http://www.paulstreet.org/?p=1025). 

As it happens, the annual date on which the Congress’s routine Continuing Resolution (C.R.) to maintain funding of the federal government came one day before the first date on which the many millions of ordinary Americans who lack health care coverage could review their options under Obamacare’s new health insurance exchanges. The calendar conjuncture was irresistible to the Republican machine, whose leaders chose to “stand their ground” by launching the first government shut down in seventeen years. They did so in brazen defiance of public opinion in a time when the popularity of both the Congress and the Republican Party are at or near all-time lows.

Beyond “the Tea Party”

While the “Tea Party” faction of the Republican Party stands in the noisy, high-profile, media-favored vanguard of the shut-down, thanks in part to the antics of Ted “Stand Your Ground” Cruz, it is important to understand that this is not just a “Tea Party” operation by any stretch. As the New York Times editors noted three days ago:

.        It wasn’t just a few Tea Party hotheads who drove the United States government to the brink of shutting downEarly Sunday morning, all 231 House Republicans (along with 17 Democrats) decided that crippling health care reform was more important than keeping the government’s doors open…The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Harold Rogers of Kentucky — a 32-year veteran who should know better — stood on the House floor and disingenuously claimed that the Republicans were not trying to provoke a shutdown….Delaying the health law by a year, supported by all but two House Republicans, would prevent 11 million uninsured people from getting coverage in 2014 and raise premiums for those buying coverage in the individual insurance market…Repealing the tax on medical devices, supported by all House Republicans, would add $30 billion to the deficit over 10 years and reduce the revenues needed to pay for coverage for low-income people.” (NYT, “The House Rushes to a Shutdown,” September 29, 2013)


Obama misrepresented the situation to some degree when he said three days ago that One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn’t get to shutdown the government to refight the results of an election.” 

Contrary to this formulation (widely echoed across dominant media), the current Congressional Tea Party Caucus consists of just 45 or so House members (and a handful in the Senate) – far short of the numbers required to shut down the government.

What Were They Thinking? 

Why has the Republican leadership courted significant political blowback – the G.O.P. paid dearly for its shutdowns of the federal government in the mid-1990s – this fall? While I am not privy to the inner councils of top Republican strategists, it seems likely to me that two key factors figured prominently in their shut-down calculations. The first factor is the significant amount of frothing, crypto-fascistic paranoia they have created among their hard-core FOX News/talk radio base concerning “Marxist Obamacare” and more generally about government spending and “big government.” After all the dread, distortion, and rage they have cultivated about the “socialist” health reform, the “radical” Obama, public expenditure, and the “overreaching” federal government, they probably felt that they had little choice but to “stand our ground” by linking the C.R. to the demand for Obama’s destruction or else face “Tea Party” humiliation in future Republican primaries. 

(Anyone who doubts the success of Republican propaganda among a significant part of the population ought to spend some time amongst the FOX News Rush Limbaugh cohort. I did recently and can report that “red state America” has been primed by its media masters to see the ACA’s implementation as nothing short of a Bolshevik takeover that must be stopped “before its too late” and “liberty” becomes a distant memory.) 

The second factor is the overall unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act. In CNN/ORC International polls over the last three years, Obama’s “signature liberal legislation” has been opposed by 59% (March 2010), 56% (August 2010), 59% (March 2011), 54% (May 2013) and now 57% (September 27-29, 2013) of Americans. It is currently supposed by just a bit more than a third (by 38%) of the U.S. populace. (See CNN poll results at http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2013/images/09/30/rel10a.pdf). 

Looking at these numbers, Republicans may have figured that they had some room to work with in terms of overall public opinion, beyond the tightly gerrymandered provinces of Republican reaction and paranoia.

Democrats Hardly Blameless 

Democrats will certainly blame much of the ACA’s unpopularity on the right’s anti-Obamacare propaganda and misinformation. There’s no small measure of truth in the charge. Pollsters have found widespread misperceptions about the ACA, including the notion (pandered by the Republican noise machine from the beginning) that it creates governmental panels to make decisions about end-of-life care (or non-care) for Medicare recipients – the ghoulish “death panels” of FOX News fame (Allison Kopicki, “Polls in Overtime on Affordable Care Act,” NYT, September 30, 2013). 

Still, Obama and the Democrats bear no small responsibility for the unpopularity of their health reform. The bewildering 900-page ACA epitomizes the corporate conservatism of the current Democratic presidency and party and the rightward drift of the nation’s entre political and policy system beyond just “the Tea Party” and the broader Republican (or Teapublican) Party. Modeled on a state-level plan that 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney passed and oversaw as governor of Massachusetts, Obamacare is dedicated to a vision of “change” that leaves a parasitic oligarchy of giant private insurance and drug companies free to extract massive profits that drive health care costs to the breaking point for individuals, families, communities, non-profits, small businesses, and government. As economist Dean Baker has shown, America could eliminate its dreaded fiscal deficit by replacing the hopelessly dysfunctional privatized and employment-based health insurance system (still essentially intact under the ACA) with a universal public model similar to what exists in other industrial nations – with am easily understandable system that would cut health costs in half and yet deliver superior outcomes. Curiously enough, a U.S. public majority has long (and irrelevantly) favored a Canadian-style single-payer system whereby the government grants equal health coverage to all citizens regardless of wealth, income, and other social distinctions. The Obama Democrats worked very effectively to freeze single payer advocates and even the notion of a small “public option” out of the corporate health care “debate” in 2009, when the Democratic Party held solid majorities in both houses of Congress as well as the White House (see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power [Paradigm, 2010], 109-127).

Republicans’ Fault for a Bad Thing 

Fortunately for the many millions who will attain new access to health insurance under the corporatist ACA (there is no point in those of us on the “hard left” denying the reality of heightened access to health care under the bill), the measure’s broader unpopularity with the public is not coupled with majority support for the Republican gambit of shutting down the government in order to win Obamacare’s repeal. More than two-thirds (68%) of the nation thinks it “would be a bad thing for the country” if “the federal government had to shut down for a few days because Congress did not pass a new spending bill.” Just less 4 in 5 Americans (79%) that if would be bad for the government to shut down for “a few weeks” for the same reasons. If the government was shut down, a CNN/ORC poll last weekend found, 46% of Americans said they would blame “Republicans in Congress” and 36% said they would blame the president. When asked which it was more important for Congress to do, just a third (34%) chose “Preventing major provisions in the new health care law from taking effect by cutting the funds needed to implement them” while 60% selected “Approving a budget agreement that would avoid a government shutdown.”

The Real Test: October 17th 

The Republicans’ shut-down gambit would appear to be self-destructive. How far the Tea.O.P. is willing to go in putting its reputation and electoral viability at risk in order to prevent a conservative and corporatist health reform remains to be seen. The real test is in a couple of weeks, when the debt-ceiling comes due. As the liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman explains: 

A government shutdown looks benign compared with the possibility that Congress might refuse to raise the debt ceiling. First of all, hitting the ceiling would force a huge, immediate spending cut, almost surely pushing America back into recession. Beyond that, failure to raise the ceiling would mean missed payments on existing U.S. government debt. And that might have terrifying consequences….Financial markets have long treated U.S. bonds as the ultimate safe asset; the assumption that America will always honor its debts is the bedrock on which the world financial system rests. In particular, Treasury bills — short-term U.S. bonds — are what investors demand when they want absolutely solid collateral against loans. Treasury bills are so essential for this role that in times of severe stress they sometimes pay slightly negative interest rates — that is, they’re treated as being better than cash….suppose it became clear that U.S. bonds weren’t safe, that America couldn’t be counted on to honor its debts after all. Suddenly, the whole system would be disrupted. ….it looks quite possible that default would create a huge financial crisis, dwarfing the crisis set off by the failure of Lehman Brothers five years ago.” (P. Krugman, Rebels Without a Clue,” NYT, Sept. 30, 2013)

The Ruling Class to Darkly Ironic Rescue?

Given the deep underlying demobilization, atomization, demoralization, division, depression, exhaustion, oppression and repression of the majority working class populace in New Gilded Age America, it appears that the leading candidate to stop that crisis is the Wall Street financial elite. It may have created much of the economic and plutocratic mess that brought the “Tea Party” phenomenon and the paralysis of Washington to the fore. Some of its leading political investors may have bankrolled and otherwise advanced the deadly rightward drift of the U.S. (including the Republican/Teapublican Party) and the related evisceration of liberal and progressive countervailing power over the last three plus decades. But the big financial money hardly wants to undermine the favored global investment status of the U.S. and to undermine the full faith and credit of American capitalism.

“Ironically, considering who got us into our economic mess,” Krugman writes, “the most plausible answer is that Wall Street will come to the rescue — that the big money will tell Republican leaders that they have to put an end to the nonsense.”

The painful fact that Krugman is right on that terrible and dark score is a terrible statement about the sorry state of left organization and politics in the U.S. today – something that is itself related both as cause and effect of the American ruling class’s remarkable wealth and power.

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of many books, including Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), Crashing the Tea Party (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, 2011), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, forthcoming in January 2014).

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