Michael Barone observed back in 2009 and 2010 that Obamacare was the most divisive legislation since the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which was one of the incidents that gave birth to the Republican Party, and was also a milestone on the way to the Civil War. Had today’s liberal media been present at the time, I’m sure they would have decried the Republicans for “extremism” in opposing the Act and standing athwart “popular sovereignty” and other simpleminded expressions of “democracy.” The first platform of the Republican Party in 1856 pledged the new party to abolishing “the twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.” Within a year, the Supreme Court, in Dred Scott, essentially ruled that the Republican Party’s platform and purpose was unconstitutional. How’s that for extremism!
This parallel should be borne in mind as we survey the present scene, and as we ask ourselves which party actually today represents intransigence and “extremism.” Obamacare remains a partisan law, unacceptable to a large portion of the country whose will on the matter, expressed unevenly as always in our deliberately mixed electoral system, is nonetheless clear. It should be kept in mind that although the fundamental question of slavery couldn’t be resolved through the political process in the 1850s, even in that situation of extreme polarization a number of other compromises over sectional friction were achieved in Congress, most especially a lowering of tariffs that the South quite legitimately disliked.
The parallel today is obvious: even if Republicans can’t realistically expect to roll back Obamacare in toto from the House, the more reasonable positions on the medical device tax and eliminating the special privileges for members of Congress and their staffs (both of which enjoy some Democratic support) should be the ground on which a practical compromise is struck to end the shutdown. Who is standing in the way of this?
But maybe what we’re seeing right now is in fact something new and different by an order of magnitude beyond previous political crises over the budget? That’s the case my old AEI colleague Chris DeMuth makes over at Forbes.com:
This month’s government shutdown is more serious than earlier budget impasses. The two sides are unusually adamant. The rhetoric, especially that of President Obama and his aides, has been astonishingly nasty. And we are just warming up for riskier brinksmanship over the debt limit.
It is tempting to fix blame on the deficiencies of our political leaders (I could do so with gusto) and to assure ourselves that this too shall pass. But the increasing frequency and gravity of our budget and debt imbroglios suggests more fundamental causes. I believe that today’s turmoil is the culmination of three institutional problems that have been building for several decades.
From here Chris goes on to analyze how changes in the executive branch and in Congress over the last 30 years have led us to this pass, on top of which our debt is now exploding and being used mostly for present consumption rather than infrastructure or winning a war. It is a sobering account, but it raises the question: perhaps now is precisely the time to make a stand and say enough. If Chris is right (and I think he is), then the current crisis is just the first of many that will have to come. Having started down this course, the House GOP may as well stay the course.
A longer version of this essay appears in the Claremont Review of Books.