The Strange Shutdown

You know, on one level the government shutdown is the strangest story. Congressional Republicans didn’t want a shutdown—they wanted to ding ObamaCare without having one. Democrats did want a shutdown—they thought it would reveal the Republicans as crazy, irresponsible, at the mercy of their radical wing. That’s not what they said in public, but it’s how they thought things would play out.

The shutdown came. Republicans scrambled for a strategy: pass bill after bill to fund federal agencies and departments that have been closed. Keep those monuments open! They would get a shutdown without a shutdown, make their point while not causing the kind of pain that would come back on them.

The Democrats and the president responded by refusing to back the funding bills. Their strategy would be to keep everything closed, which would cause maximum pain for the citizenry, who would react by hating the GOP. And the people are blaming the Republicans, but the Democrats too. The Democrats have been reduced to trying to keep World War II vets out of their monument, and saying blithe things about children with cancer.

And what all this means is that Republicans, who hate big government, are fighting to keep it open, and Democrats, who love big government, are fighting to keep it closed. Strange.

Watching the president’s news conference today I continued to think he made a mistake in adopting the Pain Strategy, but I also thought he and his party missed a real opportunity. The president and the Democrats should not have spent the past 10 days insulting Republicans; they should have spent the past ten days laughing at them. After the shutdown Mr. Obama should have had his party rush to the floor of Congress with bill after bill refunding and opening whatever the Republicans had caused to be shut. The Democrats should not have branded the shutdown “the Republican shutdown”; they should have branded it, “The Failed, Desperate, Uncaring Republican Attempt to Close Down Our Government.” The president should have made himself the protector of the potentially abused. And when Republicans, as they would have, refused to fund some programs or agencies dear to his constituencies, the president should have fought to protect them, too. He should have made the Republicans look not dangerous but ditzy and ineffectual. “A bunch of armchair nihilists can’t stop the American government from doing the work of the people.” And he should have smiled throughout, from day one, knowing he was leaving his opponent in the looming debt ceiling fight starting out from a position of embarrassment.

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If you watched the president’s press conference and walked in thinking he was more or less right about things you probably left feeling the same way, and if you walked in feeling he was wrong you walked out thinking that. Mr. Obama has a great talent for saying harsh things in a moderate way. He compared Republicans to arsonists, immature people, extortionists and I think zombies out for your blood. Normally when you insult someone your tone gets a little hot, but the president insults people in cool, mild tones, as if he’s only trying to describe them accurately.

I imagined him as a child:

Grandmother: “Do your homework now.”

Obama: “Well, I understand your position and I can’t say it’s fully without merit, but I don’t suppose it’s the worst thing that someone works hard in school all day and then attempts to take a short breather.”

Grandmother: “Barry, it’s 9 o’clock. Do your homework.”

Obama: “I’m sure I’ll get to that, and I understand your frustration at being the chief breadwinner in our family, and I’m sure you’re tired, as grandpa is from whatever he does. And believe me, I understand your need to establish some kind of authority and impose order in an atypical family containing a grandson approaching his teen years. And I don’t doubt you’re feeling some conscious or unconscious anxiety that you may have contributed in some degree to this situation, though I want you to understand I don’t blame you, or indeed anyone.”

Grandmother: “Barry, keep that up and I’ll come at you with the broom. Get that TV off, now!”

Obama: “I understand why someone might resort to such threats and feel the lure of violence, especially the powerless, who cling to their brooms.”

I imagine it ended with her grabbing the broom, his yelping “OK, OK!” and running, with his books, to his room.