I guess we’re supposed to feel grateful that the congressional leadership has come around to a deal to stop the shutdown and prevent a default. The details emerge as I write this, but it looks like the compromise essentially continues financing everything until after the holidays. As for Obamacare, over which the Republicans claimed they waged this fight, it is virtually untouched. It appears the only concession the GOP got was some means-testing mechanism for subsidies—which is a non-issue compared to the regulatory burdens, the individual and employer mandates, and the rest of the big reasons people actually dislike the Affordable Care Act.
This should disappoint anyone who saw in this whole episode, however disgracefully the politicians behaved, a hope that on the horizon perhaps politicians would actually spar over something important. Two years ago, when we were saved from the precipice of doom, when the Republicrats got together and found a way to avoid even the histrionic shutdown of parks and liquor licenses, the whole controversy had concerned an obscenely small margin of disagreement over the budget. The Democrats had wanted to spend a trillion Americans didn’t have, and Republicans wanted to cut that by a few dollars. At least Obamacare is a major government program worth fighting over.
Of course, the conservatives who stuck to defunding it somehow managed to get most of the public’s blame. Even though a majority of Americans have favored repealing the law fairly consistently for years, the Republicans manage, time and again, to lose the popularity contest to the president and his party, even on issues where the public agrees with them.
I would guess some of this has to do with the Republicans’ appearing to capture the worst of both worlds. Here we had them seem to want to put everything else on hold, all to stop Obamacare. But then they caved and gave everything away. At one moment, they decried the shutdown as a horror inflicted by the administration. Then they would brush it off as no big deal, ignoring those hurt when the government cuts the least damaging and most publicly appealing programs.
But really, the main problem the Republicans have is that no one who isn’t loyal to the party apparatus genuinely believes they favor fiscal restraint, true free enterprise, or individual liberty, much less seriousness on the issues. The core of Obamacare was cooked up by conservative operatives colluding with the medical industry, and its essence as a combination of mandates and subsidies was embraced as good policy by such Republican stalwarts as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and, even after Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Newt Gingrich.
The public looks at the GOP’s talk of laws being unconstitutional or debt ceilings being dangerous to raise or spending going out of control, then it remembers six years of George W. Bush and complacent Republicans in Congress. We all remember the budget rising under Bush even faster than it has risen under Obama—7% a year compared to 4% a year. Then Republicans talk about civility in political deliberation, but we all remember when mild critics of their foreign policy agenda were tarred as unpatriotic seditionists.
Obviously, the Obama Democrats have made matters much worse fiscally. They have continued the wars and increased spending. They have enacted in Obamacare an awful regulatory program that will cause massive collateral damage on the economy and labor market when it’s finally implemented. On civil liberties and presidential power, they have gone considerably beyond the last administration’s muscle-flexing.
So it’s important to have some kind of counterweight to this. The current Republican Party, influenced though it may be by the Tea Party, is not going to cut it. The public doesn’t like the Republicans, even when the Democrats are backing a less popular policy. And there’s good reason, since no reasonable observer can trust that all too much would improve simply by switching the party in charge of Washington.
Indeed, if the last few weeks taught us anything, it’s that the political ruling class has a firm grip on both parties and likely always will. The whole shutdown business only demonstrates what the rulers prioritize and what they’re willing to dispense with. And one wouldn’t be too suspicious to wonder if the last thing they want is for a default to come and for it not to be as bad as everyone fears. It would cause many problems, and the political class would be rather embarrassed, but sooner or later their house of cards is going to collapse, and they have to be losing some public confidence in their illusion that the feds can spend like this forever.
Instead of looking for hope in Washington, Americans concerned about profligacy and regulatory destruction probably need to look elsewhere, especially for anything other than marginal improvements. People will continue to find ways to evade the central plan, to fight back, to produce technologies that offset at least some of the state’s destruction. In the longer term, we need a culture that doesn’t look to DC as savior, that refuses to borrow from future generations to pay for ridiculous corporate-state entitlements today, that is willing to demand liberty across the board—a culture of people willing to turn their backs on any and all politicians who turn their backs on them.
If you look upon both parties with a fair share of cynical resentment today, you are probably helping to foster such a culture. It’s a very long-term approach, but the short-term ones in Washington simply don’t work. And we can take some comfort in how much scorn the public is heaping upon their would-be masters.