The U.S. government suspended operations on Tuesday, and most everyone even tangentially involved in bringing this “shutdown” about has said what he or she thinks about the whole debacle, addressing such questions as “How did we get here?” and “How do we get ourselves out?”
Amongst all this pontificating, one line that particularly stood out for me was from a New Mexico congressman named Steve Pearce, who explained the extraordinary sequence of events by simply saying, “At times, you must act on principle and not ask what cost, what are the chances of success?”
The principle of which the congressman speaks, as we know, is the right of every American not to have health insurance, which Pearce and his fellow travelers seek to ensure by repealing the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Enough Republicans agreed that such a right was worth defending to the point of grinding official government business to a halt, and everybody in Washington, D.C., has been yelling at everybody else ever since.
The gist of the Democratic Party’s explanation for the shutdown—verbatim, in some cases—is that the Republican Party has lost its mind. That the “Tea Party” faction of the GOP in Congress has become so overwhelmed with hatred for the Affordable Care Act that it has lost all perspective on all other matters of governing, including governing itself.
President Barack Obama suggested as much in a speech in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, pointing out that if the GOP were truly serious about getting rid of Obamacare, allowing the government to close was an idiotic way of doing so: By design, the healthcare policies that kicked in this week come from funding sources that the shutdown will not affect.
Meanwhile, of course, this federal work stoppage will wreak enormous financial damage through countless other channels—all told, the fiasco is expected to cost some $300 million per day—violating the GOP’s supposed core principle of minimizing government spending in every way possible.
Politically and economically speaking, this shutdown makes no bloody sense.
As I see it, if we are to understand why it happened, that is precisely how: Because it makes no bloody sense.
It’s just as Congressman Pearce said: The consequences don’t matter. The moral imperative of shuttering Obamacare is so profound and so pure that it cannot be compromised in any way—even if such a compromise would raise the probability of actually getting it done.
Such is the paradox at the heart of the conflict between principle and pragmatism: One is compelled to avoid the latter in order to maintain the former, even though exercising the latter has, in practice, proved oftentimes to allow the former to come about.
Leaving aside the particulars of the current crisis, I must reassert my soft spot for public figures who possess real convictions and are willing to take real risks to defend them. In a Washington bursting at the seams with people fearful of asserting bold, unpopular opinions—be it for reasons of money, prestige or political survival—it is essential always to have a small gang of gadflies who challenge conventions, rather than sheepishly adhering to them.
Christopher Hitchens aptly captured the essence of the appeal when he described George Orwell as someone who “would follow logic and honesty to their full conclusion” and “would not be deflected by the fact that this might offend someone he knew or some cause with which he was associated.”
As a wise old wizard once said, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”
The catch is that Orwell was not a lawmaker or representative of the people. When he said and did what he felt in his core was right, his words and actions did not affect millions of people or cost his government untold billions of dollars in lost revenue. He was a free and independent man who, for better and for worse, only lived in his own behalf.
The congresspersons who have brought the federal government to its knees on the grounds that Obamacare is a lousy policy are not quite so fortunate. Like all those who serve at the pleasure (and mercy) of the people, they are mandated to behave as if their actions have consequences, because they do.
By pulling this grand stunt, the rabble rousers in the GOP have proved they are serious in their antipathy toward the Affordable Care Act. They have sufficiently demonstrated there is nothing they will not do to make this point. Having gotten this behind them, then, they might do well to carry on with the business of running the damn country.