So, they did it. Unable or unwilling to control the tea party zealots who have taken over the Republican Party, House Speaker John Boehner allowed his chamber to shut down the federal government over the issue of the Affordable Care Act. It was an appalling decision that flashes the party’s unfitness to govern a large and diverse nation.
Make no mistake: This was the fault of the national Republican Party. Each side is blaming the other, but the fact is that congressional Republicans are pop-eyed and purple-faced about the health reform law. They care about nothing else and are perfectly happy to hang a “closed” sign on the front door of the world’s pre-eminent democracy. They will hold their breath and stamp their feet.
The health care law is, indeed, a serious matter. Many people don’t like it. But the law was duly passed and the Supreme Court affirmed its constitutionality. If the country has come to the point where a rabid minority can obstruct the entire government because it doesn’t like a law that has withstood the tests set out by the country’s fathers, then watch out. We have entered a new and destructive phase, one that recalls Benjamin Franklin’s famous response to a questioner that the nation now had a republic – “if you can keep it.”
It is not keeping it when absolutists have a conniption fit and shut down the government because they don’t like a particular law. That’s not the way a democracy deals with disappointment. The solution was to let the law begin rolling out – which it did on Tuesday – and then to campaign against it in the next election. Republicans might have made some points that way.
But tea partyers don’t relate to the norms of democracy any more than they do to the standards of adulthood. They have taken their toys and they’re going home. Their epic pout will appeal to the party’s single-issue voters, but will drive just about everyone else away.
Here’s how loony the tea party is about this issue. An outfit calling itself the “Tea Party Express” issued a press release Tuesday, headlined “With Republicans Like These, Who Needs Democrats?” It went on to criticize Republicans doubting the wisdom of shutting down the government.
For example, it didn’t like this comment by the indisputably conservative Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia: “I’d love to [defund Obamacare] too. But shutting down the government and playing into the hands of the president politically is not the right thing to do. Plus, it’s going to do great harm to the American people if we pursue that course. We’ve been there. It didn’t work.”
Chambliss is right on all counts. But facts don’t matter to the tea party, which also didn’t like the view of a couple of New Yorkers, including Rep. Michael Grimm of Brooklyn, who had the bad judgment to note: “The circus created the past few days isn’t reflective of mainstream Republicans – it projects an image of not being reasonable. The vast majority of Republicans are pretty level-headed and are here to govern.”
That’s true, too, but that vast majority quakes in its boots about the shouters in the minority, allowing them to capture half of the U.S. Congress, shut down the government and, in a matter of two weeks, to threaten that nation’s reputation for paying its bills.
Sad to say, among the shouters are Western New York’s two Republican congressmen, Reps. Chris Collins of Clarence and Tom Reed of Corning. Their effort to defend what is, in fact, indefensible speaks poorly of their ability to lead or to govern.
The solution is for Boehner to bring this matter to the floor and allow Democrats, who are mainly sane – at least on this issue – and the grown-ups who remain in the Republican Party to call this craziness to an end. That probably wouldn’t mean the end of Boehner’s speakership, a tea party tantrum notwithstanding, but so what if it did?
President Obama, who believes passionately in the health reform law, persuaded frightened congressional Democrats to vote for the bill by telling them that they came to Washington for a reason. It was time to be counted – in the way that the Constitution intends.
Now, it’s time for Boehner to stand up. He has to remember that his duty is to the country and the Constitution, not to a band of zealots who have little interest in either. This is his moment. He needs to act.