woody zimmerman 118 2007Why do we need TV soaps, sitcoms or madcap comedy, when we have the Congress and the White House? In recent days, the customary, genteel formality of the Congress passing legislation to fund the federal government for the new fiscal year has degenerated into a pie-throwing donnybrook between Republicans (who control the House of Representatives) and Democrats (who control the Senate) – with President Obama standing on the sidelines making wisecracks and hurling abuse. Leaders of both parties steadfastly claim (with hand solemnly placed on heart) that they do not wish to close the government, but the high-stakes drama has played out thus:

  • House Republicans have passed a “continuing resolution” that would fund government operations for all or part of the new fiscal year (commencing October 1st) only if implementation of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) is delayed for one year;
  • Senate Democrats appear willing to let the government remain unfunded unless they receive a “clean” bill from the House that contains absolutely no limitations on the ACA;
  • President Obama has signaled a complete unwillingness to negotiate on any aspect of the ACA, and has declared that he will veto any bill which contains such items.

Over the last week, both houses of Congress have engaged in legislative show-votes, last-minute adjournments, and even late-night press-conferences to emphasize their particular stances on these issues. The president has gone out of his way to deliver speeches in which he accuses Republicans of malice and bad faith for failing to discharge their duties to the country and wanting to hurt its citizens. The print and electronic media have also been in full histrionic mode, warning of dire economic and political consequences – the latter, especially, falling on Republicans who (they claim) will surely be blamed for shuttering the government.

Despite all this, the new fiscal year turned over without funding for the federal government having been enacted by Congress and signed by the president. For the first time since 1995-’96, the government has closed for lack of funding. Although each party claims that the other really wants the shut-down, it is clearly Democrats who gleefully anticipate the “blame” Republicans will receive for the event. (After all, isn’t this the way it is always done?) Recently, I heard Fox News Senior Analyst Britt Hume point out that we seem to expect Republicans to be blamed for shutting down the government because the Mainstream Media has so assiduously assured us that it must be so.

Democrats may be drinking their own bath-water on this expectation, however. Although their media acolytes have ceaselessly cheer-led for the party on this point, polls indicate that the tactic may not be working as well this time as it did in 1995. Then the government was shut down for 21 days, straddling the Christmas and New Year holidays and annoying citizens in various ways. Recent polls, however, show a virtual tie between citizens who think Republicans caused today’s shutdown (39%) and those who think Democrats are responsible (36%), while 17% think both parties are to blame and 8% don’t know.

Many old-timers who were around at the time of the 1995 shutdown seem not to have noticed that an entire alternate news “universe” has grown up since that time, including the Internet, booming conservative talk-radio, and the powerhouse Fox News Cable Channel, which attracts more cable-viewers than the so-called Mainstream Media. This revised media coverage makes it virtually impossible for the MM to control a political message, as they did during the 1995 shutdown.

There are other important differences between now and 1995. Then, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich were in close negotiations “until the last dog died” (as one commentator put it). But today, Mr. Obama isn’t a party to any negotiations at all. He is playing golf, playing phone-tag with Iranian President Rouhani, and making speeches in which he smears and belittles Republicans for not accepting that the ACA is “the law of the land.” Why must everything be so “politicized?” he asks – an audacious rhetorical question from the most thoroughly partisan president the republic has seen in decades, or perhaps ever in its history.

More than these differences, though, no issue on the table in 1995 came close to the significance of Obamacare today. It will drastically change the country by hanging a gigantic cost burden on young people and much of the middle class, while slashing the treatment seniors can get via Medicare. The Republicans are holding tenaciously to their position because they know that a majority of Americans do not want the ACA. This makes them certain of their political ground.

Republicans’ conviction on this has completely shocked their opponents – not to mention several country-club “moderates” – who expected Republicans to do their customary el-foldo when the abyss of a government shut-down yawned before them. Democrats have been quite secure in the knowledge that the GOP would always shrink back from a shut-down at the last minute, fearing that they will take the blame for it. That the 1995 script may not be followed this time seems not to have occurred to Democratic Senate leaders and the Obama White House. I believe their hand is not as strong as they think it is.

Democrats have convinced themselves that in voters’ minds a government shutdown is absolutely the worst possible eventuality. Perhaps some citizens do feel that way. But I suggest that a larger segment of the body politic now understands that Obamacare represents far greater potential harm to them and to the country than a mere few days’ closure of the government. This sea-change in attitude is the real dark horse in today’s political debates. I shall be extremely surprised if it does not energize conservative Tea Party partisans more in 2014 than in 2010.

True believers in the hoary liberal shibboleth of government-run health care are living in a time-warp of their own imagination. For them, it’s always 1945, with the country just emerging from decades of depression and war – its needy citizens ready to embrace “helpful” liberal policies and politicians. True, we have come out of a long war against Islamist terror, and we are still depressingly mired in economic “mud” of our Glorious Leader’s own making. Many voters lean toward the expansive style of government Mr. Obama favors, but I retain a conviction that this is not the Way desired by most Americans.

I believe my countrymen still want to work, earn, achieve, and build futures for themselves and their families. They want to do for themselves more than they want government to do for them – provided they can have opportunities in an economy freed from onerous government regulations and restraints and crushing debt. They know that government makes everything it touches more expensive. And they know that we can do better than Obamacare. God willing, we shall.