Monday, April 11, 2011

Time to stand up to the bullies

Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) declared last week that if Senate Democrats refused to accept “a modest down payment on fiscal discipline and reform, I say, ‘Shut it down!’ ” And the crowd of about 100 Tea Partiers echoed: “Shut it down!

As the shouting persisted, it became clear that the government of the most powerful country in the world was being held hostage by a band of fanatics who (1) represent a very small proportion of our population; (2) hate government so much that they relished the idea of closing its doors, no matter the cost; and (3) have neither respect nor patience for the normal democratic give-and-take between competing parties and points of view.

In no other modern country do threats to shut down the government become a routine way of doing business. Because the Tea Partiers in the House were eager for a shutdown and President Obama was so determined to avoid one – and to stay out of the spotlight until the final days – Speaker John Boehner had the upper hand. 

In our repertoire of American dysfunction, we are on the verge of adding shutdown abuse to another abuse – the filibuster in the Senate.

Republicans won an extension of tax cuts for the wealthy in December and now one on spending cuts. But at least Obama got some economic stimulus out of last year’s tax deal. The latest agreement on $38 billion in cuts – about 3/4th of the cuts they wanted – which will cause a modest setback to the economy. Thankfully, the administration and Senate leader Harry Reid pushed Boehner toward more “sensible” cuts, protected important programs such as Head Start, and stopped the GOP’s proposed policy changes on family planning, the environment, and other issues. But to my horror, Republicans, with control of just one house of Congress, defined the terms of debate.

Obama’s argument is that government action is essential in making the United States more competitive, innovative, and in expanding opportunity for Americans who are being left behind. By distancing himself from this round of the budget debate, the president forfeited an opening to challenge the anti-government assumptions embedded in Republican arguments that are shaped far more by the Tea Party than the movement’s numbers in the country or its falling poll ratings would justify.

The vast majority of Americans oppose shutdowns. They do not share the aggressive antagonism toward government that is distorting our politics. Unless Obama gives voice to this sensible sentiment, we will face more episodes like this one. For if government is turned into something evil, no one has an obligation to stewardship of its institutions. Recklessness in pursuit of political victory becomes a virtue. Indifference to those who are served by or work in government becomes a badge of honor. In those Tea Party shouts of “Shut it down,” the “it” drips with contempt for the government – and as far as I am concerned, contempt for America. We cheer when drug dens or terrorist havens are shut down. There should be no glee over shutting down our American government. 

Threatening the functioning of our government is not an acceptable tactic in a democracy! Period. 

The Tea Party seems to be composed of small minds, small hearts, and little patriotism, I think, with their attitude of give-me-all-I-want-or-I-will-do-all-I-can-to-wreck-the-government-and-the-country. Hitler once told his commanders to lay waste to all of Germany because Germany had failed him. Sound familiar?

Obama seems to take the long strategic view. By sacrificing a pawn today, he may be much better positioned to do battle on the debt ceiling issue in May. At that time he needs the courage to defend the government he leads. He needs to declare that he will no longer bargain with those who use threats to shut down the government or force it to default on its debt as tools of intimidation.

I am most concerned that Obama is moving center-right in order to please the independent voters so that he has a chance at re-election. He once said that he would rather be a very good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president. I can only hope that once he is re-elected, he will move back to center-left and stand up to the Tea Party bullies.