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JEFF JACOBY

Compromise with Republicans, don’t demonize them

You know why Republican conservatives really want to defund Obamacare?

“Everyone knows why,” wrote Salon’s editor Joan Walsh last week as brinksmanship over the health care law triggered the federal shutdown.

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Well, I thought I knew why. I thought GOP opposition reflected a conviction that Obamacare was bad law, that it would drive up the cost of health coverage while diminishing quality of care, and that its heavy-handed mandates would leave Americans with less freedom and choice. I assumed Republicans wanted to spare the country from what even leading Democrats have warned will be a “huge train wreck.” And I was pretty sure they believed that standing athwart a law most Americans have consistently opposed was not only sound in principle but sound politically. After all, the Democrats’ insistence on steamrolling Obamacare into law without bipartisan support in 2010 had provoked an electoral “shellacking” that cost them 63 seats in the House, handing Republicans their largest congressional majority in two generations.

But according to Walsh, I had it all wrong. The “real story of the shutdown,” she argued, is that the Tea Party’s “riled-up . . . racists” want to “torpedo Obamacare, the signature program of our first black president.”

Outside the fever swamps of the left it may be hard to imagine any serious person taking such ludicrous analysis at face value. But this is what passes for wisdom in the liberal echo chamber, along with such by-now familiar smears of Republicans and conservatives as terrorists, anarchists, vandals, and hostage-takers. Democratic loyalists in the mainstream media augment the rancor, promoting the view that Republicans alone are responsible for the confrontation. They applaud President Obama’s blanket refusal to negotiate under the shadow of a government shutdown or a looming federal debt ceiling. In so doing, they reinforce the worst instincts of an administration that always seems willing to demonize Republicans and attribute their motives to sheer malice.

“We are not for . . . negotiating with people who have a bomb strapped to their chest,” said senior Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer as the government shutdown approached. “It’s not a negotiation if I show up at your house and say give me everything inside or I’m going to burn it down.”

That kind of talk may be good for partisan morale, but is blind refusal to negotiate going to get Democrats what they want? It’s possible, I suppose, that House Republicans will utterly cave under the pressure, agreeing to fully fund Obamacare and raise the debt ceiling unconditionally. I can’t say for sure that the president’s hard line won’t prove a winning strategy. But if history is any guide, the Democrats will compromise, however much they insist they won’t.

And history there is. As Dylan Matthews documents in his Washington Post blog, there have been 17 other federal government shutdowns since 1976, the year the modern congressional budget process took effect. Most of the shutdowns lasted no more than three days, but nearly half dragged on for a week or longer. Shutdowns occurred under Republican and Democratic presidents (George W. Bush was the only modern president not to preside over a shutdown), and 15 of them took place when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives — usually under Speaker Tip O’Neill.

The earlier standoffs were fought over a variety of emotional issues, including abortion, the MX missile, and aid to the Nicaraguan contras. But most ended with a negotiated deal. In a government constructed of co-equal branches, and under a constitutional design that assigns autonomy to each house of Congress, that’s the way standoffs are expected to end.

Much the same is true of increases in the federal debt ceiling.

Of the 53 increases in the debt limit passed by Congress since 1978, fewer than half were enacted with no strings attached. Under Democratic and Republican presidents, and under House and Senate majorities of either party, debt-limit negotiations, deals, and conditions have been common. It’s fatuous to argue that, because the consequences of a federal default could be so serious, this is no time to be demanding concessions. What better bargaining chip could there be? What better opportunity for members of Congress to drive home the dangers of fiscal indiscipline?

“America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership,” then-Senator Obama said in 2006, explaining his vote not to raise the debt limit. “Americans deserve better.”

He was right. Americans did deserve better. They still do.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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