01 October 2013

Stalingrad on the Potomac

Stalingrad was a trap for Hitler. He remained committed to taking the city long past any realistic hope in part because he felt it would be a great propaganda victory to conquer the city named for his Soviet enemy. Prestige was on the line for Stalin, too, and that gave the battle an intensity and a body count greater, perhaps, than the city's strategic significance justified. And here we are now: no one is dying from the partial government shutdown, and it's hard to believe that the fate of the nation rides on the success or failure of the Affordable Care Act, but because it is "Obamacare" passions have gone off the chain. Republicans simply must defeat it, while the President's prestige is at stake -- and supporters of both parties are out for blood, or at least that's how it looks on the Internet. Democrats are in check and they don't like it, and as a result I've seen people demand that Speaker Boehner, Senator Cruz, etc. be arrested, while the usual bile in favor of impeaching Obama (or doing who knows what to Majority Leader Reid) continues to flow through the usual channels. The sad fact is that the House of Representatives shares the power of the purse. They are under no constitutional obligation to fund what they don't want to fund. Neither the approval of the ACA by a previous Congress, the decision of the Supreme Court, nor the 2012 presidential election imposes the obligation on them. It seems unfair that they can block the operation of the government or even force it to default on its financial obligations, but your problem is as much with the Constitution as with the Republican (or Tea) Party. Our government is not designed to give the President what he wants, no matter who he represents or what mandate he claims. Instead, it allows for what the 19th century nullifier John C. Calhoun called concurrent majorities. There is a "majority" that re-elected Barack Obama, and a "majority" that kept the House under Republican control. The presidential majority does not outrank the congressional majority; the former can't pull rank and require the latter to defer to their mandate.  That's the structural problem. The practical problem is that while Republican arguments for delaying the ACA are disingenuous given the party's ideological opposition to the very idea the ACA enacts, the President and the Democrats have done a terrible job rallying public opinion behind the new program. People remain confused about what's happening, while the supposedly subservient "liberal media" reports on every glitch in the implementation process and each report undermines the always-shaky American confidence in bureaucracy to get anything right, not to mention the Democrats' otherwise-understandable insistence on the ACA being funded "as is."  Yet the Obama Administration really does seem to take it for granted that the public understands not only the essentials but the essential soundness of the whole process. Obama really seems to think that the public should just trust him on this. This is what he gets for going for something complex and compromised from the start instead of something simple and revolutionary. If you argue that he could do nothing better, that's probably another point against our political system rather than a point against Obama. My point isn't necessarily that we should have a more authoritarian president or a more authoritarian democracy, but really that our system of government should not make it as difficult as possible to enact measures to help keep people alive. On this point the problem is both structural and ideological, since many Americans really object to the idea that the state should help people stay alive. If they feel that way, why bother having a government?

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