Obama’s Advantage in the Government Shutdown

In recent weeks, the Republican Party, whatever the flawed analysis of American intellectuals and intelligentsia, has behaved admirably throughout the budgetary and debt ceiling battles. They began with the goal of halting the impending train wreck of Obamacare in its tracks by defunding its implementation. When Harry Reid’s Senate rejected the proposal, the Republicans instead offered to simply delay Obamacare for a period of one year. This too was rejected. The Republicans proposed additional funding measures, including bills that would fund the government on a piecemeal basis. In each case, it has been the Democratic Senate and President Obama who have prevented funding the government. Most recently, the Republican House has offered a bill essentially funding the government and raising the debt ceiling as the Democrats required, asking only that healthcare subsidies for lawmakers and their staffs be eliminated and that administration officials be required to enroll in the Obamacare exchanges. As of Tuesday night, the president declared that he would veto such a bill.

The Republicans have done all they should and could do as statesmen by attempting to produce a bill that will be agreeable to Democrats and Republicans alike while still advancing the policy goals that they were elected to pursue, rather than retreating from them. However slight an advancement the current political context will allow, they still sought it as fervently as any statesman with integrity should in the same situation. President Obama and Senate Democrats, however, have been unequivocally disagreeable, still behaving as if Nancy Pelosi were the Speaker of the House rather than John Boehner. She is not, and they should forgo any delusions they retain of absolute control over the government, at least through 2014. Sadly, the Republicans have simply been outmatched – not for their own lack of virtue in this particular instance, but by the unparalleled nihilism practiced by the Commander in Chief.

From the outset, President Obama and the Senate Majority Leader have made clear their unwillingness to negotiate with the Republicans over both the government slimdown and the debt ceiling. On the one hand, the notion that the president – a constitutional lawyer – argued the existence of an imagined “constitutional duty” of Congress to pass a continuing funding resolution and to raise the debt ceiling is laughable, particularly given President Obama’s own vote against a debt ceiling increase as a US Senator in 2006. On the other, the Democrats’ assertion that they will be willing to engage the Republicans in meaningful dialogue only after the House passes a “clean” funding and debt ceiling bill is possibly the most poorly disguised political trick in history. Essentially, their call for a “clean” bill means only that they are asking the House Republicans to relinquish all bargaining chips granted to them by the Constitution (that is, being the originator and controller of all spending and appropriations bills) and to trust that the Democrats will then sit at the bargaining table despite the fact that, at that point, the Democrats will have no need to bargain with the Republicans at all. They will have already obtained everything they sought in the first place. The Republicans will have surrendered. The Democrats will have won.

That has been the strategy of Democratic leadership from the outset, trusting that the decrepit state of America’s intellectual culture would do the bulk of the work for them. And so it has. Though Obamacare continues to suffer from a deficit of public approval in every poll, the Republican Party has taken the brunt of criticism in October’s battle over government funding. The president has seen a slip in public opinion polls as well, suffering his greatest deficit in public approval since a similar budgetary battle in 2011, but the president remains undeterred. Whereas the Republicans have capitulated on a number of points to produce a resolution to the issue, the president continues to reject all proposals from Republican leadership.

This is due to the simple fact that President Obama does not care about public approval, nor even the well-being of the country itself. Rather than accede to even the smallest of modifications to the looming disaster that is his healthcare law, the president would – despite his rhetoric – prefer to use the government slimdown to inflict injury on the American people. He would prefer to see the economic stability of the United States rattled in an already weakened marketplace. Indeed, he would prefer to see the United States default on its nearly $17T debt than to allow, as he sees it, the Republicans to mar the crown jewel of his inglorious legacy: the Affordable Care Act.

The Republicans falsely bet that the president, though not up for reelection, cared enough about funding the federal government and raising the debt ceiling that he would be forced to negotiate with the Republican House. They, having no other means to entice the Senate and the White House to even consider Republican reforms to the president’s healthcare law or any other sector of public policy, thought there existed a shared, bipartisan interest in funding the federal government and raising the debt ceiling – a common goal to which both sides could agree and thus negotiate to attain. In sum, they perceived a level of rationality in the president’s philosophy that is simply not there.

As far as the president is concerned, either the Republicans grant him everything he requests as the chief executive, or to hell with the lot of them. His healthcare law is already in place. He no longer needs the legislative branch for anything but funding, and if Congress refuses to fund it, then so much worse for them – they simply will not be able to fund anything at all. This sort of nihilism permitted the president, from the start, to cause the Republicans scramble for a possible solution where none existed. It permitted him to publicly declare his desire for a solution while never making the slightest attempt to reach one. The backwards nature of America’s intellectual culture merely allowed for that expressed desire to be interpreted as earnest, and for the nihilist nature of his actions to be ignored.

Fortunately, there is the slight chance that the president may extend his nihilism a step too far. The most recent bill proposed by the GOP contains but one concession asked of the president and the Senate Majority Leader. The Vitter Amendment, created by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), would “cut health subsidies for congressional and senior executive branch officials… and require the president, vice president and political appointees to enter into Obamacare exchanges without a tax subsidy.”[1] On this issue, the Republicans have the support of a clear and overwhelming majority of the American public. According to one poll conducted by Independent Women’s Voice, 92 percent believe it is unfair for lawmakers, their staffs, and administration officials to receive special exemptions from Obamacare. Were the president to reject an appropriations bill or debt ceiling increase solely in response to the Vitter Amendment, it could potentially relieve the Republicans from public pressure and refocus it on Senate Democrats and the White House, as well as providing Republicans with a powerful campaigning point in 2014. If the same bill passes, the Republicans will have at least bound government officials to the same disaster they helped create. It is the single most politically tactful point of all Republican efforts – that they began with demands they were unlikely to achieve, and then reduced the demands to such paltry levels that it would be petty on the Democrats’ part to reject them.

Of course, such an outcome is unlikely. If the American people have generally overlooked the president’s nihilism to this point, it is not likely that they will suddenly come to recognize it in the near future. Whatever the final outcome, the events in October have again demonstrated the need for a cultural shift in the United States, for no matter how valiant the efforts of some to reduce the scope of the government, a nihilist president supported by an irrational culture makes for a near insurmountable political obstacle. More simply, it is not our nihilist president that needs to be defeated – it is the irrational culture that makes a nihilist president possible.


[1] Jonathan Allen, “Obama vow veto over Vitter measure,” Politico, 10/15/13. <http://www.politico.com/politico44/2013/10/obama-would-veto-legislation-175145.html>

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