Jonathan Chait on the Government Shutdown — New York Magazine
In a merciful coincidence, Juan Linz didn’t fairly reside to see his prophecy of the demise of American democracy borne out. Linz, the Spanish political scientist who died final week, argued that the presidential system, with its separate elections for legislature and chief govt, was inherently unstable. In a well-known 1990 essay, Linz noticed, “All such systems are based on dual democratic legitimacy: No democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the people.” Presidential techniques veered finally towards collapse in all places they had been tried, as legislators and executives vied for supremacy. There was just one notable exception: the United States of America.
Linz attributed our puzzling, anomalous stability to “the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties.” The Republicans had a great deal of moderates, and conservative whites in the South nonetheless clung to the Democratic Party. At the time he wrote that, the two events had been already sorting themselves into extra ideologically pure variations, leaving us the place we stand at present: with one racially and economically polyglot get together of center-left technocracy and one ethnically homogenous reactionary get together. The latter is at the moment trying to impose its program by risk upon the former. The occasions in Washington have given us a peek into the Linzian nightmare.
Traditionally, when American politics encountered the drawback of divided authorities—when, say, Nixon and Eisenhower encountered Democratic Congresses, or Bill Clinton a Republican one—certainly one of two issues occurred. Either each side discovered sufficient incentives to work collectively regardless of their variations, or there was what we used to acknowledge as the solely different: gridlock. Gridlock is what most of us anticipated after the final election produced a Democratic president and Republican House. Washington would drudge on; it could be arduous to get something performed, but in addition arduous to undo something. Days after the election, John Boehner, little question anticipating issues would carry on as all the time, mentioned, “Obamacare is the law of the land.”
Instead, to the slowly unfolding horror of the Obama administration and even some segments of the Republican Party, the GOP determined that the different to discovering widespread floor with the president didn’t should be mere gridlock. It might power the president to enact its agenda. In January, Boehner informed his colleagues he’d abandon all coverage negotiations with the White House. Later that spring, House Republicans prolonged the freeze-out to the Democratic-majority Senate, which has since issued (as of press time) eighteen futile pleas for price range negotiations. Their plan has been to hold out their agenda through the use of what they name “leverage” or “forcing events” to threaten financial and social hurt and thereby extract concessions from President Obama without having to make any coverage concessions in return. Paul Ryan supplied the most candid admission of his get together’s decided use of non-electoral energy: “The reason this debt-limit fight is different is we don’t have an election around the corner where we feel we are going to win and fix it ourselves,” he mentioned at the finish of September. “We are stuck with this government another three years.”
Last Tuesday, House Republicans shut down the federal authorities, demanding that Obama abolish his health-care reform in a tactically reckless gamble that the majority of the get together feared however couldn’t stop. More surreal, maybe, had been the situations they issued in trade for lifting the debt ceiling later this month. Lifting the debt ceiling, a vestigial ritual during which Congress votes to approve cost of the money owed it has already incurred, is sort of a symbolic occasion, besides that not doing it could wreak unpredictable and probably monumental worldwide financial havoc. (Obama’s Treasury Department has in contrast the impression of a debt breach to the failure of Lehman Brothers.) The hostage letter House Republicans launched brimmed with megalomaniacal ambition. If he wished to keep away from financial wreck, Republicans mentioned, Obama would undergo a delay of health-care reform, plus tax-rate cuts, enactment of offshore drilling, approval of the Keystone pipeline, deregulation of Wall Street, and Medicare cuts, to call however just a few calls for. Republicans hardly pretended to consider Obama would accede to the total listing (a set of calls for that amounted to the retroactive election of Mitt Romney), however the hubris was startling in and of itself.
The debt ceiling seems to be unexploded ordnance mendacity round the American type of authorities. Only customized or ethical compunction stops the opposition get together from utilizing it to nullify the president’s powers, or, for that matter, the president from utilizing it to nullify Congress’s. (Obama might, theoretically, threaten to veto a debt ceiling hike until Congress attaches it to the creation of single-payer medical health insurance.) To weaponize the debt ceiling, you should be keen to inflict hurt on hundreds of thousands of harmless individuals. It is a surprisingly highly effective self-destruct button constructed into our very system of presidency, however solely helpful for the most ideologically hardened or borderline sociopathic. But it seems to be the excellent device for the modern GOP: a celebration giant sufficient to regulate a chamber of Congress but too small to win the presidency, and infused with a harmful, millenarian mixture of overheated Randian paranoia and totally justified worry of antagonistic demographic tendencies. The solely factor that limits the debt ceiling’s efficiency at the second is the widespread suspicion that Boehner is just too old style, too missing in the Leninist will to energy that fires his newer co-partisans, to really perform his risk. (He has advised as a lot to some colleagues in personal.) Boehner himself is thus the one weak hyperlink in the House Republicans’ capability to hold out a sort of rolling coup towards the Obama administration. Unfortunately, Boehner’s management of his chamber is tenuous sufficient that, like the ailing monarch of a crumbling regime, it’s unimaginable to strike an settlement with him in full safety will probably be carried out.
The standoff embroiling Washington represents excess of the specifics of the calls for on the desk, and even the prospect of financial calamity. It is an incipient constitutional disaster. Obama foolishly set the precedent in 2011 that he would let Congress jack him up for a debt-ceiling hike. He now has to crush the apply fully, lest it turn into ritualized. Obama not solely should refuse to commerce concessions for a debt-ceiling hike; he has to make it clear that he’ll endure default earlier than he submits to ransom. To pay a ransom now, even a tiny one, would guarantee an limitless succession of debt-ceiling ransoms till, finally, the two sides fail to agree on the appropriate measurement of the ransom and default follows.
This is a home Cuban Missile Crisis. A single blunder might have unalterable penalties: If Obama buckles his no-ransom stance, the debt-ceiling-hostage genie shall be out of the bottle. If Republicans consider he’s bluffing, or settle for his place however obstinately refuse it, or attempt to carry the debt ceiling and easily botch the vote rely, a second Great Recession might ensue.
When Linz contemplated the kinds of crises endemic to presidential techniques, he imagined intractable claims of competing legitimacy—charismatic leaders driving nice passionate mobs, insisting they alone represented the will of the individuals. The current disaster is a variation of that. Republicans insistently level to polls exhibiting disapproval of the Affordable Care Act—a sort of assertion of legitimacy through direct referendum, implicitly rebuking Obama’s counter-argument that the presidential election settled the challenge of repealing the Affordable Care Act. But the Republican place rests extra closely on the logic of extortion somewhat than in style mandate. “No one wants to default, but we are not going to continue to give the president a limitless credit card,” warned Republican consultant Jason Chaffetz earlier this yr. Obama “will not permit an economic crisis worse than 2008–09,” wrote former Bush administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen, and thus “has no choice but to negotiate with GOP leaders.” Republicans argue that Obama bears all duty for avoiding a nationwide disaster; Obama argues that each side bear an equal quantity day-after-day—and that this specific mess shouldn’t be his to wash up.
How to settle this dispute? Here is the place Linz’s evaluation rings chillingly true: “There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the Constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.” This is a combat with no guidelines. The energy wrestle shall be resolved as a pure contest of willpower.
In our Founders’ protection, it’s arduous to design any political system robust sufficient to resist a celebration as ideologically radical and epistemically closed as the modern GOP. (Its proximate casus belli—forestalling the onset of common medical health insurance—is alien to each different main conservative get together in the industrialized world.) The tea-party insurgents turn into proper that the Obama period has seen a elementary problem to the constitutional order of American authorities. They had been flawed about who was waging it.