The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 31, 2013

My View: Shutdown born of GOP extortion, extremism

By Fred Slocum

— The recent federal government shutdown showed that House Republicans, the motherlode of serial lunacy in American politics today, have learned little to nothing from history (especially the 1995-96 shutdowns), the 2012 election, and opinion polling. The 2013 shutdown was the predictable outcome of virtually the entire Republican Party’s downward spiral into extremism (1) and refusal to both compromise and accept factual reality.

House Republicans’ behavior in trying to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was extortion, pure and simple. Driven by the tea party’s demands for wide-ranging, scorched-earth war on government, the congressional Republican extortion caucus (goaded on by tea party hero Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex), insisted it would only fund government agencies if both the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Obama agreed to zero-budget ACA.

Topping this, in mid-October, House Republicans unleashed the mother of all extortion campaigns – risking plunging the federal government into unprecedented default on its financial obligations, with severe damage to U.S. and global financial markets and the nation’s creditworthiness. In exchange for not crashing the U.S. and global economies, House Republicans demanded Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate capitulate to a dizzying radical-right wish list: Zero-budgeting ACA, wide-ranging voter-suppression laws, more tax cuts for the rich, Draconian cuts to food stamps and other social programs, approval of the Keystone oil pipeline and more.

Extortion is new in partisan conflict: Democrats never used it to block Reagan’s tax cuts and budget in 1981, scuttle tax reform in 1986, or defund Bush’s Iraq fiasco in 2007-08. It also lies completely outside acceptable boundaries of political conflict. Republicans justified their behavior because Obama supposedly “wouldn’t compromise” with Republicans’ crusade to ensure 25 million Americans just suck it up and remain uninsured. 

House Republicans could not have expected Obama to surrender to extortion. As Obama said, “They will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy. The full faith and credit of the United States is not a bargaining chip.” (2)

Some relevant history: In 1995-96, congressional Republicans triggered, and were rightly blamed for, two government shutdowns after attempting to blackmail then-President Bill Clinton into signing budget bills loaded with severe cuts to domestic programs, including Medicare, education and environmental protection. Averaging across four polls, 49 percent blamed congressional Republicans for the 1995 shutdown, 26 percent blamed Clinton and 19 percent blamed both (3). 

Recent polling showed similar results, with one poll showing 53 percent ready to blame congressional Republicans, and 22 percent ready to blame Obama, for the recent shutdown. (4)

Ignoring this, congressional Republicans recklessly claimed “the American people” supported them. Enough already: In Republican-speak, the “American people” really means only “the tea party,” “the Republican base” or both – pure delusion.

Republicans trumpeted polls supposedly showing public opposition to “Obamacare” — ignoring two fundamental realities. First, much polling on this issue obscures that a significant chunk of opposition stems from progressives, unhappy that ACA did not go far enough in expanding health coverage.(5). Second, vague opposition to ACA doesn’t mean the public endorses the Republican defunding crusade. 

Far from it: A September poll found 44 percent opposition to defunding ACA, with 38 percent support. The Republican fetish for tethering ACA defunding to raising the debt ceiling or averting government shutdown attracted 59 percent opposition and 19 percent support. (6)

In its wake of the defeat of the extortion caucus. perhaps Republicans will begin to recognize some realities. A legitimate path to repealing ACA would be electing a Republican president and a Republican controlled Senate. Having failed at both in 2012, Republicans aren’t entitled to effectively negate that election through extortion and blackmail today. 

Obama’s supposed refusal to compromise is a perfectly legitimate response to extortion and blackmail. Any Obama capitulation to the Extortion Caucus will establish a precedent that this president can be steamrolled – and extortion, blackmail and dragging the country kicking and screaming through crisis after crisis will become routine actions from House Republicans. Obama is willing to compromise – but only through good-faith negotiation. The trouble with today’s Republican Party is that tea party zealots now run it, and to that crowd, compromise is apocalyptic heresy, while extortion and blackmail are glorified.

Fred Slocum is an associate professor of political science at Minnesota State University, where he teaches courses on U.S. government, Congress, the presidency, political parties and American public opinion.

1, and