The great governmental shutdown in Washington turned out to have its utility after all.
It prompted a substantial national debate about the role of government in our nation. It spurred an unusual surge of conversation about Congress, with Americans conducting a national civics lesson and actually examining the performance of their representatives. It raised eternal questions about the balance between conviction and compromise, about the equilibrium between resolve and responsibility. And it illuminated several important themes about American governance that sometimes are explored in isolation but seldom in broad context.
So, a muted cheer for all of those who stuck to their guns while endangering the nation’s image, financial stability and role in the world. They shined a bright light on these immutable elements of our system:
-- The split between the House and the Senate, which are entirely different bodies, and not only because they operate with different rules.
Sometimes the two chambers move in the same direction -- a good example was how Charles Sumner of the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens of the House operated in tandem during Reconstruction. But oftentimes they don’t, or they at least move at different speeds with different timbres; the intensity of the Senate’s willingness to defund the Vietnam War in the 1970s, for example, wasn’t matched by the House.
This autumn the two bodies are showing their character, the Senate displaying the power of an individual (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas) to dominate proceedings, the House reminding us that it is ruled by coalitions (the tea party). This is only heightened by the fact that the two chambers are ruled by different parties.
-- The view of the national interest is different from the height of the Capitol than it is 16 blocks away in the White House.
It is true that in many respects Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama have the same strategy, which is to hang tough while tea party Republicans appear to hang themselves. (That is a good strategy while the poll numbers hang high. Once they drop, that strategy will be dropped, too.)
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and, to a lesser extent, because she has less power, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California have a slightly different perspective.
The tea partiers are their opponents, to be sure, but they are also their colleagues. This spending debt-ceiling crisis is kind of like the Dual Monarchy of Capitol Hill right now, with all the attendant proclivity to catastrophe possessed by Austria-Hungary a century ago.
But someday this struggle will end, or morph into something else. Obama will be gone from Washington in three years. Many of today’s lawmakers will be in the capital for years to come. Obama may think he is playing for the long term but for him that means the quiet pages (or Web pages) of history. The others look to a noisy future, hostages not so much to history as to each other.
Put another way: For Obama, hell is the next generation’s Henry Steele Commager. For lawmakers, it comes straight out of Sartre’s “Huis Clos”: Hell is other people. And if you’re inclined to say to those denizens of the Hill, “Live with it,” remember that what you mean is this: “Live with each other.” Easier said in the theater of the absurd than done in the absurd theater of politics.
-- Establishment figures would have put an end to this nonsense, but there is no Establishment anymore.
This new truth of American politics first became evident in 1984, when the Establishment figure in the Democratic Party (former senator and vice president Walter F. Mondale, armed with the endorsement of almost any Democratic politician who mattered, plus the labor movement) barely limped to nomination. It became clearer in 2008, when the Establishment candidate (Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of a president and a senator from a powerhouse state) was defeated by an insurgent born in a country that doubted any black person could be elected president and who had the additional disadvantage of having almost no experience in high office.
But disestablishmentarianism — a term rooted in 18th-century English church history, a stumper beloved by lexicological wise guys and a word I finally found a legitimate use for — became a bipartisan phenomenon a year ago when there were no adults to call a halt to the Republicans’ determination to endanger, if not doom, the inevitable nominee, Mitt Romney. His political death was assisted suicide.
Now there is no Washington Establishment to end the paralysis, which went from the fiscal cliff of New Year’s to the continuing resolution crisis of late September to the October hurricane of the debt ceiling.
Should we call in Bob Dole, who loved a deadlock? You must be kidding. In a shameful exhibition of disrespect, Republican senators let him sit in stunned mortification in his wheelchair in the chamber he once strode like a colossus rather than approve his treaty to assist the disabled. Give Bob Strauss a ring? The Democratic national chairman who was a Republican president’s choice as ambassador to the Soviet Union? Dream on.
The fact that one (Dole) is 90 and the other (Strauss) nearly 95 tells how antiquarian this notion is. And by the way, Lloyd Cutler has been dead for eight years, Clark Clifford for 15 and Dean Burch for 22.
-- Power sometimes resides outside elected office.
We are not speaking here of the people in whose interests Washington is supposed to work. We are speaking of unelected power brokers who, throughout American history, have exerted outsized influence.
In the past they have been figures like Jay Gould, whose analogues today are on Wall Street. Or church figures, like Jonathan Edwards of the Great Awakening, the New England-bred preachers of the Social Gospel, the abolitionist clergymen and their lineal descendants in the black church and rabbinate of the civil rights movement, or Father Charles Coughlin, the radio priest who turned on Franklin Roosevelt.
Today’s outsiders command big money and big megaphones. This month a Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover thumped these words: “John Boehner Doesn’t Run Congress. Meet the Man Who Does.” And there, on page 71, was a picture of former senator Jim DeMint, now the head of the Heritage Foundation. He’s not alone. And he’s not in elected office.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.