The government is back up and running – using the running, very loosely – and nothing seems to have changed. In some ways, it seems like Congress has just kicked the can down the road. Maybe the road will look different next January when it will be closer to elections, maybe it will look different because the assessment of the players – on both sides – will be different going in, and maybe it won’t.
I started to write about an incident with a woman in a supermarket to make my point and then remembered that I told the same story in 2011 – it obviously made a big impression on me – so here it is Something like twenty-five years ago – I remember it like it was only five years ago – I was waiting in the ten items or less line, when I realized the person two or three people in front of me had an over-full cart being pushed by a crazy looking teenager. Just then, her mother came running over very embarrassed saying something like Oh! no, dear; it is not nice to put a full cart in this line. The crazy teenager just looked at us like somebody yelling in the street and said “They don’t care”. She probably wasn’t drooling but I do remember her looking slightly dangerous in a ready to go berserk way. We all looked at our feet, including the checker, and she went ahead.1
It was a vivid demonstration of how much power the craziest person in the room has and it has, obviously, stuck with me. I am going to define crazy person – here – as someone being willing to let the government collapse if they don’t get their way. Leading up to the shutdown, the right fringe of the Republican Party – who I am calling the Tea Party, for brevity – gave every indication that they would be the only crazy person in the room. They constantly made statements indicating that they were willing to take the country down to get their way (and that the government was so bad, or so big, or so ineffectual, or so something, that taking it down wouldn’t matter or might, even, be good). The Tea Party power, however, rested on the belief that they were the only people crazy enough to actually take this government down.
Obama has a long history – as long as you can have in four and a half years of being president – of compromising (sometimes it even seemed as if he was compromising before the settlement talks started). This time however, Obama said he would not compromise, We’re not going to pay a ransom for America to pay its bills ….we can’t make extortion routine as part of our democracy. Like the Tea Party, his beliefs were strong enough, he was crazy enough, to let the government shutdown. Additionally, he seemed willing to not compromise to raise the debt ceiling, no matter how much damage it would do.
Obama bet that he could justify his motives for his crazy behavior better than the Tea Party could and the polls proved him right. He bet that, what Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker calls the Republican “survival caucus”, would vote for a compromise if there were two crazy people in the room. He was right. In the end, just eighty-seven out of two hundred and thirty-two Republicans in the House of Representatives, changed their collective minds, but that was enough, along with the Democratic members who compromised on the timeline.
I am not sure that the Democrats had much of a choice in this except to compromise on the timeline. They had to compromise on something to make a deal and, with Obama refusing to give on Obamacare, all that was left was the time line (the did agree to means test reimbursable payments for low-income people buying insurance but that was, apparently, already in the bill). In the end, everybody agreed to kick the can down the road.