Throwing tantrums and shutting down the government is a bipartisan sport. Both Republicans and Democrats have now thrown this particular tantrum, like children fighting over a toy, and it’s great fun only for the tantrum-throwers. The rest of us, and that includes both Democrats and Republicans, are not much amused.
Naturally the eminent members of Congress, posing as statesmen as sober as archbishops and as wise as a tree full of owls, only throw such fits as acts of conviction and principle. But convictions, like cash, are fungible — the newly fashionable word that merely means that one conviction or principle (or a wad of cash) is hardly better than another. When convenience changes, so can a conviction.
When one party shuts down the government, it can now recycle the justification that the other party has used. (No crisis goes unused.) The most recent shutdown — the one Chuck Schumer and the Democrats call “the Trump shutdown” and President Trump and the Republicans call “the Schumer shutdown” — lasted only one day, and not even all of that. Cooler heads felt the hot breath of their constituents on their necks and decided to grow up, if only until next time.
Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans, declared that the Senate would not negotiate with Mr. Schumer and the Democrats until they agreed to reopen the government — the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court, the rest of the bureaucracy and, heaven be thanked, all the ships at sea. The Democrats thought this demand was an awful infringement on holy convictions.
But only four years ago, with the parties and convictions neatly reversed, the Grand Old Party threw a similar fit and vowed not to budge on Barack Obama’s budget negotiations until he saw the light and came to terms with Republican arguments. Mr. Obama said he was willing to talk with anybody, even Republicans, about revisions to his “signature issue,” the health care scheme that would eventually be called Obamacare.
But when Republicans, then in the minority situation the Democrats have no patience with, wanted to make certain changes, well, that was different. Since he had the votes to enact his signature issue untouched, Mr. Obama wanted to get on with the dance. The Republicans did the only thing they thought was available, and threw their tantrum. Mr. Obama was outraged, and called in the usual cliches presidents invoke when they point with pride and view with alarm. He wouldn’t negotiate as long as the government was shut down.
Mr. Obama, like his successor no slouch with bandying words, called the shutdown a manufactured crisis (something that Congress is no slouch at), and said “the United States could not afford to deal with a ‘manufactured crisis’ over funding the government and paying its existing obligations. Think of it this way: The American people do not get to demand a ransom for doing their jobs. You don’t get a chance to call your bank and say, ‘I’m not going to pay my mortgage this month unless you throw in a new car and an Xbox.’ “
Shutting down the government is a very big deal in Washington, where everybody knows somebody who works for the government or who is personally inconvenienced when the passport office, an art museum or the zoo closes and the pandas, the killer snakes and the playful monkeys get the day off.
The Democrats, who are accustomed to thinking that government employment is the only respectable way of life, have made a ritual of reciting how shutting down the government will be a betrayal of all that Americans hold dear. That’s why a nuclear bomb dropped on the Mall would be such an inconvenience. It’s usually the Republicans who are bemused by the prospect of the government taking a few unexpected days off. But this time it’s the Democrats who think shutting down the government would be irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Americans.
“So if you’re an American who wants to live in a safe community and wants a safe border, too bad for you,” observes Genevieve Wood on the Daily Signal website. “If you’re a man or woman serving in our military, sworn to protect us around the world, well, [you’re] just not going to get those funds that the military may need. And if you’re not an American citizen but you’re standing in line because you want to have a chance at the American dream and you’re trying to do it the right way? To all those folks, Democrats are saying, ‘Get to the back of the line.’ “
Congress seems to have got the message this time, and all over Capitol Hill lethargic ladies and drowsy old men are shaking themselves awake, exhausted from their tantrum. Tantrum-throwing is hard work, as every parent has observed. Round 2 on Feb. 8 is only three weeks away.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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