Refusing to negotiate is the new reasonableness. After years of agonized media commentary about the failure of key players in Washington to sit down and work out their differences, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to win the fight over the government shutdown by rejecting all compromise, calling his opponents names and escaping blame in the press.
Eric Cantor, do not try this at home. It is a gambit available only to Democrats, who are presumed, almost by definition, to be free of any responsibility for a shutdown. For his part, President Barack Obama says he won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling, so the current fight that Democrats won’t negotiate over might roll into the next one they won’t negotiate over, either.
The basis of the refusal to talk is the notion that only an extremist with a bomb strapped to his chest would make a policy demand as government funding is about to run out. This argument depends on a short memory. Before Republicans lost the shutdown fights with Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, putting an end to such brinkmanship for the duration, the policy dispute on the cusp of a shutdown was a routine feature of Washington.
What is supposed to be the Golden Age of bipartisanship, when Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan were bosom buddies and practically tucked each other in at night, was punctuated by periodic shutdowns. As Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post’s Wonkblog points out in a comprehensive account, the deadlocks of the 1980s involved budget cuts, the MX missile, welfare and funding for the Nicaraguan Contras, among other things -- in other words, a broad cross section of the controversies of the time.
The fact checker at the Post, Glenn Kessler, has batted down Obama’s contention that no one has ever tried to attach extraneous measures to a debt-ceiling measure before. As far back as 1973, Sens. Teddy Kennedy and Walter Mondale — aka nihilistic terrorists heedless of the damage they might cause to global financial markets — tried to attach campaign-finance reform to a debt-limit increase.
Friction between the executive and legislative branches is built into our system, and it is the nature of politics that both sides will seek to exploit whatever leverage they have. Obama didn’t hesitate to use the impending fiscal cliff at the end of 2012 to force as big a tax increase he could reasonably get. Nonetheless, the latest standoff is portrayed as the ruination of our politics. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, taking a break from his occasional fantasizing about a brief bout of Chinese-style dictatorship, thinks “our democracy is imperiled.”
The real problem with the Republican position isn’t that it is unprecedented or inherently out of bounds, but that it is unlikely to achieve much. To put it mildly, the Republican handling of the continuing resolution has lacked the forethought traditionally associated with successful strategy.
Every indication is that Reid welcomed a shutdown on the assumption that Republicans could be made to pay the price. It’s not a bad bet, but the risk to Democrats is that they make their eagerness to press their partisan advantage too blatant. If the shutdown is so ruinous, presumably they should want to talk about how to resolve it. If the temporary suspension of specific government functions — the parks, services to veterans — is so harmful, presumably they should welcome Republican bills to restore them.
The Democratic opposition to negotiation won’t be sustainable if the standoff continues. The president is willing — nay, eager — to negotiate with an Iran regime that has American blood on its hands. He’ll talk to it about its nuclear program that he says is flatly unacceptable, even though it is safe to assume that the Iranians aren’t acting in good faith.
Republicans who oppose his health-care law, though, are beyond the pale and not worth seriously engaging. And they are the unreasonable ones?
Syndicated columnist Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.