PREDICTABILITY of what is unfolding following the US government shutdown approaches tragedy, but ends in farce. The much-maligned Republican Party is almost entirely right on the merits of doing away with Barack Obama’s healthcare programme (Obamacare has been the key sticking point in the fruitless negotiations over the budget). Already this many-headed monster is a monument to the law of unintended consequences; it suppresses full time hiring and is almost wholly indecipherable.
And the US hates the thing. The latest 29 September CNN poll shows 39 per cent favouring Obamacare, with 51 per cent against. But this deeply unpopular centrepiece of Obama’s legacy is about all he has going for him. Both his immigration reform and gun control bills are hopelessly stalled in Congress. After the Syria debacle, the White House is also seen as muddled at best over the general thrust of its foreign policy, with a nonsensical emphasis on the Middle East replacing the promising pivot to Asia. This is a failed presidency on its last legs.
But that verdict fails to take account of Republican incompetence. For they are forgetting one of the central maxims of Washington: if your enemy is in the process of killing themselves, your duty is simply to stay out of the way. Instead, the Republicans are giving the President new political life. It is madness to try to force Obama to abandon the signature achievement of his presidency (terrible though it is) as the asking price for merely keeping government running.
The latest CNBC poll on 23 September found that, by a decisive 59 to 19 per cent, those asked were against defunding Obamacare by threatening a government shutdown. The US people have again proven more grown-up than their representatives. Most heartily dislike Obamacare, and may be planning to vent their wrath on the Democrats in the 2014 mid-terms and the 2016 presidential race, an outcome that could well spell the end of the programme. But they are not in favour of stunts that hold the nation’s business hostage. Rather than letting Obamacare collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, Republicans have rashly, ineptly, and unwittingly given this Frankenstein’s Monster new life.
But there is something worse going on, as US political dysfunction imperils the nascent shale-led rejuvenation at work in a country blessed by its endless capacity for economic re-invention. The government shutdown is merely a symptom of this more terrible disease.
America stands on the precipice of being unable to indulge in reasoned political discussion. There is no practical benefit for US politicians in doing so. The poison of American redistricting through gerrymandering – the picaresque term used to describe congressional districts being drawn in Dali-esque shapes to nurture and perpetuate an increasing ideological conformity – has seeped into the body politic.
The political result has been devastating. Congress is increasingly voting in strict parliamentary terms, despite the country not being founded on parliamentary principles; voter discipline within both parties is at 100-year highs. At the state level, America has evolved into a series of 45 states with basically one-party predilections; the 2012 presidential election saw only five swing states decided narrowly, defined as by 5 per cent or less.
This new polarisation – where the crucial element of politics takes place within parties rather than between parties – leads both Democrats and Republicans to adopt inflexible positions that are never tested by rigorous electoral competition. Such an outcome has left two disciplined parties to do battle with precious little motivation to work together, even over the basics. All these semi-hidden political incentives point toward the headline direction everyone is presently moaning about: political sclerosis.
What’s lost in all this is the precious ability to keep the US system going, predicated as it is on checks and balances. The great American Civil War historian Shelby Foote knew his people well when he noted that, despite the myth of rugged American individualism, it is the country’s time-tested ability to be flexible when the chips are down that is its greatest blessing, marred only by the horrendous bloodletting of 1861-65.
In this case, that means fighting Obamacare tooth-and-nail at the polls in upcoming years as the country wants, but not holding the US to ransom, either over the present government shutdown or more importantly the larger crisis-to-be of raising the debt ceiling in the next few weeks. For continued political dysfunction imperils nothing less than future of America itself.
Dr John C Hulsman is president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.