While the House of Representatives was voting late on Monday night, by sheerest coincidence I was watching the Oscar-laden Lincoln on telly. Waking to news of the government shutdown yesterday, it was impossible not to marvel anew at the Republican Party’s development.
The film deals with the period leading to the House passing the 13th amendment which abolished slavery in April, 1865 – and a century and a half later, so absolutely does the party of Honest Abe disdain the authority of the first black President that it has paralysed the government in a bid to delay the introduction of what it calls Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act). Such is progress in the crazy, crazy world of the GOP.
The movie records a member of his cabinet telling Lincoln that by pushing through abolition, he was making himself a tyrant of the sort the Constitution was designed to avoid. His reply was that by declaring emancipation 18 months before his re-election, he had given the people plenty of time to think and make a judgment.
Plus ça change... The same charge of being a dictator is often made against Obama by the screeching harpies of America’s frothing right, and he can make the identical response. Congress passed his Act at the end of 2009, and having had almost three years to reflect (and watched the Supreme Court uphold its legality), the people re-elected him. A law guaranteeing citizens a modest form of universal health care has now been ratified by the legislature, the judiciary and the electorate, and this is not enough to persuade the Republicans that it should probably therefore be effected.
And so for now, with the exception of “essential services”, there is no government of the people, by the people, for the people. The immediate ramifications will be trivial, at least compared to poor Americans dying in droves and in agony for want of medical treatment. No one should die from this shutdown, the financial markets will recover from any wobbles, and warnings about the effect on global growth will quickly seem hysterical. For America, this is less a catastrophe than an embarrassing inconvenience.
The catastrophe belongs to a Republican Party which will rightly be blamed for once again using terrorist tactics, as with the debt ceiling crisis of 2011, to challenge the authority of the first black President. That was a title honorarily given to Bill Clinton, of course, the last Oval Office occupant to preside over a shutdown when in 1995-6 the then Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, reckoned that this brand of nuclear brinksmanship was smart politics. The ensuing mid-term elections were a disaster for the Republicans, as no doubt they will be for them in November next year. They know this, but as with Samson, history’s first suicide bomber, damaging the enemy is paramount regardless of the personal cost.
Given that Clinton was in fact the first electric pink President, it would be too crude to pin the GOP’s recent collapse into nihilistic oppositionalism purely on gutter racism. Yet their intransigence has scaled such maniacal heights under Obama that you cannot avoid the obvious assumption. This vista of a political movement continually seeking displacement activities, as steam valves to release the pressure of suppressing the urge to scream “uppity n*****” , bubbles unceasingly away beneath the pond.
On the surface, meanwhile, the flaw in the Constitution becomes ever more apparent. In its creators’ phobia of the tyranny of which Lincoln and Obama have been accused (for extending the right to pursue liberty from slavery and a malign insurance industry respectively) lay the seeds of the paralysis blooming like a triffid in Washington today.
A tricameral system designed to dilute power by spreading it between legislature (House and Senate) and executive (President), and overladen with checks and balances, relies on respect for the will of the people. When the electorate produces the ultimate check by matching a Democratic Senate and President to a Republican House, that split decision dictates a duty to compromise.
This the Republicans – or that congressional tranche who are either extremists or terrified of inviting a primary challenge by offending the Tea Party – simply will not countenance. The current GOP makes Mrs Thatcher at her “no, no, no” worst look like the most mimsyishly consensus-seeking politician in Scandinavia. If Obama sponsored the Deification of Ronald Reagan Act, the GOP would reject it. If he introduced the Abolition of All Tax For Billionaires Act, it would cite this as further evidence of his unreconstructed Marxism, and try to filibuster it to extinction.
Speaking of which brings us to the one gleam of hilarity to light up this latest reprisal of the Republican Party’s macabre dance of death. Technically, since the relevant vote was in the House of Representatives, Senator Ted Cruz’s speech of last week was not a filibuster, and it certainly did little to invoke Jimmy Stewart’s heroic mega-waffle in Mr Smith Goes To Washington. Nonetheless, he addressed the Senate for three hours short of a day.
In those endlessly captivating 21 hours, the junior Senator from Texas not only recited passages from Ayn Rand (naturally), and likened colleagues not minded to shut down the government to Nazi appeasers. Nor did he restrict himself, though the force was strong with him, to impersonating Darth Vader. He also read a Dr Seuss story to his daughters, who were watching the Dadathon at home on C-Span.
Passing over any inherent commentary about the toddler tantrum Republicans having a mental age of four, Green Eggs And Ham seemed a startlingly prescient choice. On the question of eating green eggs and ham, the fortuitously rhyming Sam-I-am could not strike a more adamant tone. “Not in a box, not with a fox, not in a house, not with a mouse,” he answers when asked if he will sample the dish. “I would not eat them here or there, I would not eat them anywhere.” Little wiggle room then to misjudge his feelings.
Eventually, just to get the dish’s advocate off his back, Sam has a taste. The transformation is instant. “Say! I like green eggs and ham! I do!! I like them, Sam-I-am/ And I would eat them in a boat, and I would eat them with a goat ...”
For those of Uncle Sam’s citizens bamboozled by Cruz and other ultras into viewing Obamacare as a Commie plot to rob them of liberty, and to hurry them into the grave (“death panels”), it will be the same. One taste of having pre-existing conditions covered by new insurance, of keeping their children on the policy until 26, etc, and they will be besotted. The GOP will look more deranged then than now, which is saying something.
In the meantime, the rest of the planet gazes in unswerving disbelief upon the Republican Party as it ignores all the evidence from the election at which Obamacare was endorsed, and continues to closet itself in the malevolent retro-fantasy land where the only way to treat the first black President’s legislative triumphs is to shackle them in chains.