"This isn't a damn game!" House Speaker John Boehner said Friday at a news conference on the budget stalemate that has led to the government shutdown. Really Mr. Speaker? The government shutdown is, in fact, a direct result of political gamesmanship by the Republicans.
Let's start with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the Narcissus of Capitol Hill. No one loves Senator Ted Cruz more than, well, Ted Cruz. And it is no wonder. This man holds himself in the highest esteem, walks with swagger, and drips with ambition. Throughout his lifetime, all of his actions, associations and alliances have been undertaken solely for the advancement of Ted Cruz.
He is clearly far smarter than your average tea-party Congressmen, so he is leading them around by their noses on his little ego trip. And they love it because they each get to fulfill their lifelong dream of destroying the federal government, which they believe is at the root of all this country's problems. They are elected from gerrymandered districts that are filled with white hyper-conservative citizens who can be mobilized at the drop of an anti-Obama epithet.
Meanwhile, Cruz has the admiring backing of Fox News and conservative radio talk-show hosts, who are promulgating lies and distortions about the shutdown to rally their rabid extreme Republican base. The more outlandish the criticism on these right-wing outlets, the more the audience loves it. (Just don't try to take their federal benefits away!)
Tea-Party Republicans are downright giddy that they have forced the federal government to shut down. "We're very excited," said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Mn). "It's exactly what we wanted, and we got it." Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Ks) observed, "America's been a little astonished by us doing the right thing in the last few days here in the House."
Nonetheless, the wiser Republican leadership has been flummoxed by the negative public opinion the party has received because of the Cruz-driven strategy to shut the government down unless the Affordable Care Law, or Obamacare, is defunded. Word of dissension in the party ranks has only added to the party's image problems. Leaders have been scrambling to change the optics, to somehow shift blame to President Barack Obama and the Democrats.
So it was particularly noteworthy when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Rand Paul, both Kentucky Republicans, were caught in an embarrassing conversation on the Senate floor by a Kentucky TV station. They were talking about political messaging strategy.
Paul approached McConnell following his CNN interview. McConnell began by warning Paul he was "wired up here." But that didn't stop Paul, who was eager to share a powerful revelation that had come to him. "I just did CNN and I just go over and over again 'We're (Republicans) willing to compromise. 'We're willing to negotiate.' I think... I don't think they (Democrats) poll tested we won't negotiate. I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again," Paul said.
McConnell responded, "Yeah, I do too and I, and I just came back from that two-hour meeting with them and that, and that was basically the same view privately as it was publicly." McConnell was apparently referring to the meeting earlier this week between President Obama and the Congressional leadership.
Paul added, "I think if we keep saying 'We wanted to defund it (Obamacare). We fought for that and that we're willing to compromise on this,' I think they can't, we're gonna, I think... well I know we don't want to be here, but we're gonna win this, I think." So while neither Congressmen is happy with the shutdown, they now both think they will "win" this debate by shifting blame to the Democrats, whose position they can summarize as "they don't want to negotiate" on the budget or debt ceiling.
This, of course, assumes that most Americans don't know that Democrats have already agreed to huge budget cuts, basically continuing the "sequester" levels that have already been disruptive to government agencies and services. Or that Democrats have consistently said they will negotiate after a budget bill is passed and the debt ceiling is raised; or that Democrats have said they are willing to make some adjustments in the Affordable Care Act.
Meanwhile, Republicans have consistently said they will never agree to a new budget, or to raise the debt ceiling, unless Obamacare is defunded. The House has voted 42 times along party lines to defund Obamacare. But the Senate has reaffirmed its support each time. So Republicans have wasted precious time and valuable taxpayer dollars trying to eliminate a law that was passed by Congress, signed by the president, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and that President Obama was reelected on by a sizable margin.
Instead of passing even a short-term budget, so 800,000 federal employees can immediately go back to work, and services can be restored to poor and needy Americans of all ages, Republicans are focused on winning the battle in the court of public opinion. Instead of agreeing to raise the debt limit, and avoiding a global economic calamity, Republicans are trying to win the perception game.
Speaker Boehner, your protestations about this not being a game are empty because of the actions you and your party have so far taken. All America can see the games Republicans are playing. It is time for you to do the right thing for the country, and to show courage and leadership, bring the senate-approved budget to the floor for a vote.
(And don't forget what happened to Narcissus.)