The Imperial Calorie

Is it better to know, or not to know?  Are there certain pieces of information of which you’re happy to remain ignorant?  At what point does “knowledge is power” get subsumed by “ignorance is bliss”?  And what happens when all of these considerations involve the number of calories in your food?

Thanks to a new federal regulation that kicked in earlier this month, those sorts of questions have become slightly less theoretical than they were before.  In compliance with the Affordable Care Act—and following years of resistance by special interest groups—all food establishments in the U.S. with at least 20 outlets are now required to post calorie counts of all their products in all their stores.

While many chains have been doing this voluntarily for years, the practice became law on May 7, which means you can no longer order a muffin at Dunkin’ Donuts without learning that it contains nearly twice as many calories as a bagel, nor can you finish a meal at Olive Garden without willfully consuming more caloric energy than the average American burns in an entire day—with or without breadsticks.

Of course, maybe this new law means nothing to you.  Maybe you are a knowledgeable, health-conscious consumer who knows exactly what you’re putting into your body at all times.  Maybe you’ve long been aware of how deadly chain restaurant food tends to be for your waistline and cholesterol levels, and you tread carefully whenever you indulge—as you do when eating at home, at work or at Thanksgiving dinner.

However, this would hardly make you a prototypical American, 160 million of whom are either overweight or obese—a jaw-dropping figure that suggests a majority of our fellow countrymen either don’t understand how their digestive systems work or don’t care, and who pose an existential threat to our national healthcare system in any case.

As a matter of public health, then, requiring eating establishments to disclose nutrition information is a no-brainer and a win-win, and has largely been accepted as such in recent years.  By listing calorie counts on the menu, a restaurant provides valuable, potentially life-saving information to those who might need it, while still honoring every citizen’s God-given right to eat whatever they damn well please.

The problem here—as I suggested at the top—is that you cannot un-see what is written directly in front of you, and there’s a certain group of Americans who really, desperately wish they could.  If some people want to know how many calories they’re consuming while others are indifferent, there is also a third category:  Those (sometimes including me) whose culinary pleasure is dependent on not knowing, chemically-speaking, exactly what it is they’re eating, and once facts and figures enter into it, the whole experience turns sour.

I don’t know about you, but when I was younger and first scanning the nutrition labels on every foodstuff in the kitchen, the whole point of dining out was to eat as much as humanly possible, because you had no earthly idea how many calories were involved and could therefore assume there were none at all.  As any corrupt politician will tell you, plausible deniability is a powerful thing.

Admittedly, one cannot responsibly live in such utter obliviousness forever—aforementioned 160 million Americans notwithstanding—and as I’ve grown older, I’ve become considerably more informed and mindful about the science of nutrition and human metabolism, which has enabled me to balance the books in my eating and exercise routines, as well as to perform ballpark calorie calculations in my head in almost any setting—a superpower that is both highly useful and profoundly irritating.

On the one hand, becoming educated about food has unlocked the secret to losing (or at least not gaining) weight and feeling generally in control of my destiny.  By turning meals into a math problem—or, more accurately, a budget—I am considerably less likely to stuff my face for the hell of it and then feel like crap for the rest of the day.

On the other hand, by being super-vigilant about what I deposit into my pie hole—say, by scarfing down three slices of pizza for lunch instead of six—I risk turning eating into a purely clinical and joyless act—something every diet fad in history has expressly tried to avoid, because why on Earth would you remove the pleasure from the most inherently pleasurable activity of your day?

It has taken me several years—and one rather dramatic period of weight loss—to reconcile those twin urges without driving myself completely crazy.  (As Oscar Wilde put it, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”)  While I don’t regret this strange journey to enlightenment (such as it was), I often wonder whether I’d be happier if I’d remained fat and ignorant instead of thin and neurotic—and whether America as a whole is feeling similarly now that it’s become virtually impossible to eat anything without the terrible knowledge of how much it’s costing us (in all senses of the word).  Whether our ability to live longer and healthier is necessarily making us live better.

There’s a saying amongst dieters, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”  How wonderful life would be if such a thing were actually true.

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Continuity with Change

Out there in the über-liberal, anti-Hillary, Bernie Bro corner of the interwebs, the following challenge has been posed:

“Convince me to vote for Hillary Clinton without mentioning Donald Trump.”

As with so much else about the #NeverHillary crowd, it is unclear whether the above is a genuine, good-faith inquiry or just a snarky dig at Clinton’s supporters’ supposed moral bankruptcy.

It’s a rather bizarre question, in any case.  If it’s meant as pure rhetoric—a way of pointing out how the leading justification for Clinton’s presidency is that it would prevent a Trump presidency—then we can take the point while also acknowledging its childish assumption that competing candidates could ever be judged independently of each other—as if choosing one option didn’t also mean rejecting the other.

However, if the question is meant seriously, then it’s just a stupid question.

Can liberals identify reasons to elect Clinton that don’t involve her not being Donald Trump, you ask?  Are there really other liberals who think the answer is “no”?

There are dozens of ways to support Hillary’s candidacy without regard to her Republican opponent.  Many of them are identical to those that led millions of future Bernie Bros to support Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—and, naturally, many of the same traits also applied to Bernie Sanders during this year’s primaries.  There are also reasons to endorse her that are sui generis, applicable to her and her alone.

Broadly speaking, Hillary is an enthusiastic subscriber to virtually the entire Democratic Party platform—thus, anyone in ideological agreement with Democratic principles is, by definition, in general alignment with Clinton on what we sometimes refer to as “the issues.”

For instance, she would clearly support and defend—and, if we’re lucky, expand and streamline—the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, overruling every last congressional attempt to kill it once and for all.

She would affirm the recently-established right of any two consenting adults to get married, have children and live happily ever after, while also ensuring those same people cannot be fired or otherwise discriminated against for unconstitutional reasons.

She would continue President Obama’s fight against global warming and his attempts to make the country more energy independent.

She would pledge solidarity with Muslims and other religious minorities against persecution by violent Christian extremists.

She would shape a Supreme Court that would vote in favor of a multitude of issues that liberals care passionately about—voting rights, women’s rights, transgender rights, you name it.

She would try to do something about gun control and—if the stars are aligned just right—maybe even succeed.

In addition to being the first female chief executive, she would appoint a record number of women to her cabinet, not to mention a boatload of ethnic and racial minorities spread throughout the executive branch, thereby inspiring countless young people to consider public service for the first time in their lives.

She would hold meetings and actually listen to what the other people have to say.

She would forge relationships with every last member of Congress, knowing that someday she might need their support for something important.

Long story short, she would essentially be a slightly more mature—but slightly less exciting—version of Barack Obama.  In effect, she would represent Obama’s third term in office, for better and for worse.  That’s the argument for electing her president.  Take it or leave it.

Now, it’s true enough that Clinton herself has never explicitly said, “Vote for me, Obama’s third term!”  However, it doesn’t require a great deal of reading between the lines to grasp the subtext of all of her major policy positions, which can be summed up as, “If you’ve enjoyed life under Obama, you’ll enjoy it under me.”

I realize this is an inherently uninspiring message—a tacit admission that things probably aren’t going to change very much over the next four-to-eight years—but it’s also admirably fresh and realistic—a means of subtly lowering our expectations to a level at which we might actually want to re-elect her four years hence.

Every president in history has needed to confront the gap between what he thinks he can accomplish and what he can actually accomplish, and Hillary Clinton stands apart from most previous candidates in her deep understanding of this fact.  Among the many differences between her and Donald Trump—a man whom, you’ll note, I haven’t mentioned in quite some time—is that Trump apparently thinks a president can do literally anything he wants, while Clinton knows full well that the job is extraordinarily limiting and depends on a great deal of teamwork to get anything meaningful accomplished.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy intoned to the American people, “Let us begin.”  When Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy in November 1963—albeit under unusual circumstances—he said, “Let us continue.”  That’s the dynamic between Obama and Clinton:  They are so compatible in their basic worldview and value systems that we can expect an exceptionally smooth transition from one to the other (this time without an assassination in between).

I don’t know about you, but I have quite enjoyed the Obama administration.  It has followed through on a plethora of progressive actions that were utterly lacking under George W. Bush, and I can say unequivocally that my own personal corner of America is infinitely better off now than it was eight years ago.  If Obama were eligible to run for a third term, I would vote for him a third time.

But he can’t, so I’ll settle with Hillary, instead.

Many Republicans will be familiar with this sense of depleted enthusiasm, since they elected George H.W. Bush in 1988 by pretending he was Ronald Reagan, an incumbent who was term-limited after eight years of making many conservatives’ dreams come true.  In the end, Bush proved a capable but ultimately lackluster follow-up act, keeping some promises while breaking others, and is today admired as much by liberals as by conservatives.

History could easily be in the process of repeating itself on the other side of the ideological spectrum, and that is roughly what we should expect.  Hillary Clinton has drifted to the left on numerous issues as of late, but the intractability of Congress and Clinton’s own cautiousness will surely limit the reach of her administration’s most ambitious goals, resulting in exactly what her most clear-eyed advocates have promised:  Modest, gradual progress through compromise—a variation of Selina Meyer’s campaign slogan in Veep, “Continuity with Change.”

Sounds pretty good to me.

Night and Day

If there is one thing I have learned for sure about Hillary Clinton, it’s that she is both better and worse than everyone seems to think.

Worse because of her ongoing paranoia, deceit and iron-fistedness vis-à-vis her quest for the Oval Office.

Better because of her wit, intelligence, compassion and jaw-dropping stamina as they relate to the exact same goal.

In the spring of 2008, I wrote an op-ed for my college newspaper in which I petulantly griped about how Hillary Clinton has a way of getting under your skin even as you find yourself agreeing with most of what she stands for.  How her single-mindedness and love-hate relationship with rules and facts tend to overshadow her finer qualities, even for those who are otherwise prepared to accept her as the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party.

Re-reading that article seven-and-a-half years later, I am somewhat alarmed by how well it holds up.  While my writing has matured (arguably), my hang-ups about a potential President Clinton Part II were pretty much exactly the same then as they are now.  They include:  Her penchant for making up stories when the truth is readily available for all to see; her brazen disregard for the rules whenever they are inconvenient; and her tendency, in any case, to exacerbate the little scandals that pop up whenever she is in power, invariably by blaming the whole thing on her would-be enemies, be they Republicans, foreign governments or a White House intern.

All of those quirks still apply, and must forever be held in consideration when one endorses Clinton for president or any other office.  As ever, a vote for Hillary is a vote for all the baggage that comes with her.  And that’s before we get into the issues that involve actual substance.  As the enduring success of Bernie Sanders demonstrates, there remains a great minority of Democratic primary voters who consider Clinton the wrong candidate at the wrong time and who, should she become the party’s nominee, might even stay home on Election Day rather than pull the lever for her.

Against all of that, however, I come bearing news:  Politics has changed a lot over the last two election cycles and we no longer have the luxury to vote only for candidates we like.  When and if we make it to November 8, 2016, most of us will be faced with two people whom we don’t particularly want to be president, but we’ll need to choose one of them all the same, because that’s how elections work.

I know:  This sounds like a “lesser of two evils” lecture.  It’s not, because presidential campaigns are not a choice between two evils.  Deciding to ally with Stalin against Hitler—that was a choice between two evils.  When we vote for a commander-in-chief, the decision is between not just individuals, but two opposing philosophies of how to run the government of the most important republic in the world.  There’s nothing evil about it, but the choice is stark nonetheless—now more than ever before.

If you think there is no meaningful difference between Republicans and Democrats, you’re not paying close enough attention.  If you’re unwilling to vote for either because their candidates just aren’t perfect enough, you’re a child and a fool.

Last Saturday’s Democratic debate drew only a fraction of the audience of any GOP contest this year.  That’s a real shame, because, if nothing else, it affirmed Bill Maher’s observation in 2008 that to see both parties talk, it’s as if they’re running for president of two completely different countries.

Case in point:  At the most recent Republican forum, you would be forgiven for thinking that 9/11 happened yesterday and that terrorism is the only thing worth caring about when it comes to the welfare of the United States and its citizens.  It was practically the only subject that came up, while such things as the economy, health care, infrastructure and even immigration received little more than a passing shout-out from any of the nine candidates.

The Dems spent plenty of time on terrorism, too—the San Bernardino massacre made it unavoidable—but they allocated equal, if not greater, emphasis on subjects that are—let’s be honest—considerably more urgent and germane to all of us at this moment in time.  Along with the issues I just mentioned, these included gun control, race relations, income inequality, college affordability and the fact that America’s prisons are overstuffed with people whose only “crime” was getting high and having a good time.

This isn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill disagreement over national priorities.  This is a dramatic, monumental clash over whether the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  The whole GOP platform has been reduced to, “Be afraid all the time, because you could die at any moment,” while the Democrats act as if tomorrow might actually come and we might as well live and govern accordingly.

Is this the lowest bar we’ve ever set in the history of presidential elections?  Possibly.  Indeed, it’s downright depressing that the very act of governing is no longer seen as a given for anyone in public office.

What is far more depressing, however, is that so many citizens seem to think it doesn’t matter which party is in charge, or that both parties are equally at fault for all of the preventable problems that have occurred throughout the Obama era.  Neither of those assumptions is true, and there are tangible consequences to thinking otherwise.

Care for some examples?  Listen to the GOP’s own rhetoric:  If a Republican is elected president next year, it means the Affordable Care Act is in danger of actual repeal, as is the nuclear agreement with Iran.  It means reversing climate change is no longer a priority, along with the rights of black people, gay people, poor people, women, immigrants, Muslims and refugees.  It means the Supreme Court will net at least one conservative justice, which could easily lead to decisions adversely affecting all of the above and more.  It means our “war” against ISIS will almost certainly escalate to include actual boots in the sand, and God knows what impact that’ll have on our national debt (to the degree that anyone cares).

I realize, of course, that America’s conservatives would be thrilled by such results, but that’s not really who I’m talking to right now.

No, I would mostly just like to remind my fellow leftists that there is a limit to what your disgust with “establishment” Democrats like Hillary Clinton can accomplish.  Clinton is most certainly a flawed candidate, and a flawed messenger for the liberal view of good governance.  She is plainly compromised by her close relationship with the financial industry and remains insufficiently skeptical of large-scale military interventions in the Middle East.  She hasn’t yet mastered the art of damage control and offers little assurance that she won’t create more damage in the future.  A second Clinton presidency would guarantee a fair share of political nonsense from the day she arrives to the day she leaves.

Know what else it would guarantee?  Health insurance for tens of millions of people.  Funding for Planned Parenthood.  Increased protections for the LGBT contingent.  A more liberal Supreme Court.

And it would guarantee our first female commander-in-chief.  Sure, I know we’re supposed to be a meritocratic society that doesn’t care about race, sex, etc., but let’s not pretend that following our First Black President with our First Woman President wouldn’t be unimpeachably gratifying.  We already know beyond doubt that a woman can manage a country at least as well as a man—perhaps you noticed that, for the last 10 years, one such woman has been more or less running all of Europe—but wouldn’t it be great to have it actually happen here?

Of course, none of this matters during the primary phase of the campaign, where we are now.  So long as Democratic voters still have a legitimate choice between Clinton and Bernie Sanders (and, I suppose, Martin O’Malley), they have every obligation to argue about which option makes the most sense for where the party ought to be, and that choice is always a balance between ideological purity and perceived electability.  If you want Sanders as your nominee, you’d best make your case now, before it’s too late.  (I’ve already made mine.)

But should time run out and your preferred candidate lose, realize that our whole electoral system operates on the principle that the party is ultimately more important than any individual within it, which means a great number of people will be forced to compromise some of their deepest-held beliefs in the interest of party unity—because it’s better to support someone with whom you agree 60, 70 or 80 percent of the time rather than ensuring victory for someone with whom you agree not at all.

If total ideological alignment leads to total electoral defeat, then what good did those principles do you in the first place?  Republicans have been learning this lesson continuously since the moment President Obama was elected.  Are Democrats on the verge of making the same stupid mistake?

Pop Goes the Weasel

Everyone had a good laugh this week at the expense of Rob Ford, the boorish, drink-sodden mayor of the great city of Toronto who, after months of stalling, finally admitted to having smoked crack cocaine at some point in the past—a disclosure facilitated by an apparent videotape, obtained by police, showing him doing precisely that.

Ford’s explanation was positively and pricelessly Pythonian.  “Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine,” he said.  “But, am I an addict?  No.  Have I tried it?  Probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago.”

The logic is charming, is it not?  Yes, I was strung out on coke.  But it was only on account of the booze.  So don’t get any ideas that I’m some sort of junkie.

To be fair, Mayor Ford did not completely evade responsibility for his unholy act, saying, “To the residents of Toronto, I know I have let you down and I can’t do anything else but apologize.”  He did not, however, take the presumably inevitable step of surrendering City Hall.  To the contrary, he took the opportunity to announce his plans to run for a second term.

In Kentucky, meanwhile, Senator Rand Paul spent the week batting away accusations of plagiarism, having been found to have lifted passages of his speeches and printed works from others’ and from Wikipedia.

While admitting that he and his aides had been “sloppy” by failing to attribute the excerpts in question, Senator Paul hastened to add, “I’m being unfairly targeted by a bunch of hacks and haters.”

Again, the logic is airtight:  Yes, I stole other people’s words and passed them off as my own.  But let’s not get distracted from the main point, which is that I have become the target of a witch hunt.

Then there is President Barack Obama, faced with twin indictments relating to the Affordable Care Act—first, that the rollout of the website through which Obamacare is distributed has been an unmitigated disaster, and second, that the president plainly lied in saying, “If you like your current healthcare plan, you can keep it.”

Yes, the website sucks and the promise about keeping your old plan was false.  But never mind all of that.  Let’s just focus on the positives:  The website will eventually work, and the policies you thought you could keep will ultimately be replaced by superior ones.

For all that differentiates the crimes of which these officials stand accused, they are tied together by the weaselly manner in which said officials have responded to said accusations.

In all three cases, you will note, the men have attempted simultaneously to admit guilt and deny full culpability.  Their explanations all follow the formulation, “Yes, I did it, but…”  So far as they are concerned, they are as much the victims as the perpetrators.

Leave it a politician to not accept responsibility in the process of accepting responsibility.

What is more, the excuse for each transgression is a complete non sequitur, as it relates to the transgression itself.

Mayor Ford would have the good people of Toronto forgive his felonious crack smoking on the grounds that it was brought about by the effects of alcohol.  Good luck explaining that to law enforcement.

Senator Paul is surely correct that his current high profile has made him uncommonly vulnerable to dirt-digging by political adversaries.  But what on Earth does that have to do with whether the information they have uncovered is true?

As for the commander-in-chief:  He can rationalize all he wants about the wonders of the new healthcare exchanges, but it doesn’t make his infinite assurances that one can opt out of them any less of a lie.  (He has attempted to atone for this in recent days, but words like “too little” and “too late” nonetheless spring to mind.)

At issue in all of these verbal acrobatics is the principle commonly referred to as “owning it.”

When you have been caught with your hand in the cookie jar, just admit that you were hungry and didn’t think anyone else was in the kitchen.  Don’t change the subject.  Don’t conjure a list of extenuating circumstances around which your piggy actions can be sorta-kinda justified.

Own it.  Take responsibility and take all of it, without the qualifications and childish whining.  As a public official, don’t insult the intelligence of your constituents by acting like they can’t see the crumbs on your mustache.

Don’t be a weasel.  Be a grownup.

Still Searching For Sanity

Three years ago tomorrow, some 200,000 viewers of Comedy Central assembled on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to witness Daily Show host Jon Stewart demand a mellowing out of American politics.

The event, co-hosted by Stewart and his counterpart Stephen Colbert, was christened, “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”  It was originally scheduled as two separate, dueling demonstrations—merged into one for logistical reasons—to weigh the relative merits of conducting a civil discussion about the public concerns of the day versus behaving like crazed goobers in the same pursuit.

Viewed now, from a distance of three years, we can see with depressing clarity which side has won.

In the event’s valedictory address, Stewart said the following:

This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear.  They are and we do.  But we live now in hard times, not end times.  And we can have animus and not be enemies.

In truth, the rally, like Stewart’s program, was as much a critique of American media as American public officials.  “The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems,” Stewart said, “but its existence makes solving them that much harder.”

Stewart’s central charge was, and is, that cable TV news networks’ portrayal of American life is false.  That most ordinary people are not as mindlessly partisan or as confrontational as political pundits would have us think and, by implication, that lawmakers in Washington, D.C., do not represent the real values of real Americans.

The context of the “Sanity” gathering was the ascendancy of the Tea Party, which by October 2010 had established itself as a forceful ideological movement and would prove politically viable for the first time in the midterm elections two days after the rally.

The idea, according to Stewart and company, was that Tea Party activists were neither as bad nor as good as the respective partisan wings of the media claimed:  Liberals were wrong to paint them all as bigots, while conservatives were wrong to claim theirs as the prevailing sentiments of most people.

Then and now, there is a distinction we must draw—narrow but deep—between having extreme views and expressing one’s views in an extreme fashion.

The “Sanity” rally seemed to imply the former is fine, provided the latter does not intrude.  That it is possible for people with wildly divergent opinions to reach, if not common ground, then at least an honest understanding of their differences and, faced with practical considerations, some sort of middle-of-the-road compromise.  That the real conflict in American politics is not between Democrats and Republicans or even liberals and conservatives, but rather between temperance and intemperance.

As we clear out the debris from this month’s government shutdown, let us ask:  In today’s environment, does this prognosis hold?

Yup.  Almost perfectly, in fact.

To the question, “Why did the government shut down?” the answer comes back:  Because the dominant faction in Congress made demands that, as it well knew, the president was never going to accept.

That the shutdown would go on unless President Obama kneecapped his own proudest domestic policy initiative, the Affordable Care Act, was an insane proposition on the part of the Tea Party wing of the GOP.  It was an impossible condition for compromise, destined to fail, and therefore an entirely theatrical exercise whose costs have run well into the billions.  And this from a party that presumes to value fiscal responsibility.

That Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, took every opportunity to hurl gratuitous, infantile insults at his political adversaries when he should have been building bridges was, if not as directly destructive to the process, an audacious demonstration of bad form that only served to poison a well that was already waist-deep in arsenic.

Absent such absurdities, negotiating the minutiae of the federal budget would have been a wholly manageable task.  Boring, difficult and protracted, but doable nonetheless.

It should not have required the government to grind to a halt for Congress to figure out how to allocate funds for the incoming fiscal year.  That it did, and the way that it did, effectively proves Jon Stewart’s main points.

We can take it on faith that Barack Obama and Ted Cruz will never see eye-to-eye on anything.  The magic of our system of government is that the world can keep right on spinning even when they don’t.

All we ask of them and their fellow public servants is to meet each other halfway—not ideologically, mind you, but temperamentally.  To calm themselves down and exhibit the shows of good faith that we, their constituents, are owed, if not always deserve.

When to Hold, When to Fold

That’s more like it.

New Jersey has become the 14th state to legalize same-sex marriage, thanks in large part to there being at least one Republican official in the United States who knows when to throw in the towel.

Here’s what happened.  The Garden State sanctioned gay civil unions in late 2006.  In February 2012, both houses of the state’s legislature voted to legalize gay marriage outright, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, who personally opposes gay marriage and said he would prefer the issue be resolved by the people of New Jersey through a ballot referendum.

Last month, however, a state superior court judge ruled that New Jersey’s civil unions policy failed to “provide same sex couples with equal access to the rights and benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples,” and that the state was therefore obligated to allow same-sex marriage posthaste.

Governor Christie initially sought to appeal the ruling, but was blocked by the State Supreme Court, which denied Christie’s request to halt same-sex weddings until the appeal ran its course.

On Monday, as marriage ceremonies began as scheduled, a Christie spokesperson released the following statement:

Although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law.  The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

In light of the government shutdown that wreaked havoc on the country during the first half of this month, one cannot help but point to the above and ask Republicans in Congress, “Is that so hard?”

The whole casus belli for the shutdown, you will recall, was the adamant refusal by certain members of the House and Senate to recognize the legitimacy of the Affordable Care Act, and the vow to keep Washington, D.C., closed until the act was dismantled.

As this gang of obstructionists had to be reminded, this was a piece of legislation that had been approved by both houses of Congress, signed into law by the president and upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And yet, the GOP was having none of it.  In their minds, Obamacare simply could not, and cannot, be accepted as the law of the land, even though, according to the stipulations and processes laid out in the U.S. Constitution, it is the law of the land.

The House has been duly ridiculed for voting to abolish the Affordable Care Act on more than 40 separate occasions—all of them knowingly in vain—but at least in doing so, its members have followed standard operating procedure regarding how laws are passed, albeit to a farcical extent.  After all, you can’t vote to overturn a law without acknowledging that the law exists.

What the shutdown debacle made plain—in case it wasn’t obvious already—is that antipathy toward Obamacare has so overwhelmed the presently-dominant “Tea Party” wing of the GOP that its leaders have come simply to not care about process.  To them, the ends justify the means, and the hell with everything else.

Governor Christie, in his handling of the gay marriage question, has presented himself as counterprogramming to this mentality:  He pushed as far as he could to prevent gay marriage from coming to New Jersey, and when his efforts proved legally futile, he gave up and moved on, conceding that not all political battles can be won, particularly when the tide of history is not in your favor.

We shouldn’t need to heap special praise upon Christie for his actions.  It is a measure of the petulance and ridiculousness of Republicans in Congress that Christie can be viewed as a beacon of statesmanship by comparison for simply doing his job.

But we cannot deny the context of the environment in which we live.  Having one high-profile Republican who respects the legitimacy of established law is preferable to having none at all.

If this week’s yielding on gay marriage is part of Christie’s presumed grand scheme to eventually run for president, he has executed it in a rather ingenious fashion.  The political right can rest assured that his heart is with them, while everyone else can breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge that, on matters of actual governance, he also possesses a brain.

Consequences

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.