There Are Those Who Say Lord Obama Has No Responsibility for Gov't Shutdown


By 1pm ET yesterday, I had already received two honors for my column "Let Us Be Clear: Obama Deserves Chief Responsibility for Gov't Shutdown.Slate's Matt Yglesias tweeted that my piece "wins the prize for most tendentious shutdown article" and New York's Jonathan Chait graced me with the "Worst shutdown column award." I will cherish these every bit as much as I do a trophy given to a "Mide Gillespie" and featuring a female figurine that I got in 1976 for being on a tennis team.

My column made what I think is a fairly obvious point (spoiler alert: I gave it away in the headline). It's the same basic point that Gov. Chris Christie makes in the clip above: That the failure to pass a budget ultimately redounds to Obama's lack of leadership. Here's part of what Christie said:

My approach would be, as the executive, is to call in the leaders of the Congress, the legislature, whatever you're dealing with and say to them, we are not leaving this room unless we fix this problem because I'm the boss, I'm in charge. When you're the executive, if you're waiting for leadership from the legislative branch of government whether you are the Governor or whether you are the President, or whether you're a mayor, you are going to be waiting forever.

The only reason the government is shut down is because there is no budget, or a continuing resolution, or a spending plan, or set of appropriations bills, or whatever you want to call it. A stronger leader and a more effective politician than Obama would have made sure that we never got to the moment we're in. Especially at the exact moment when his big health-care reform bit was about to start enrolling people. I suggested that Obama would have done better by "kick[ing] the asses of sorry little functionaries like John Boehner and Harry Reid to pass budgets on a regular basis."

Because Jonathan Chait is sometimes a funny guy, he translated that idea into a reply to my piece titled, "Confused Libertarian Demands Obama Become Strongman." And because he is far more often a graceless spewer of ad hominem attacks whose defense of being "mean" reads like a blame-the-victim bully, he wrote,

It's continually amazing to me that [Reason] publishes commentary on public policy by a writer who lacks even a rudimentary understanding of the policy process.

Among my many supposed sins was not realizing that government can function (as it has for years) without a budget per se (as opposed to continuining resolutions, appropriation bills, etc.) and that Republicans were wholly responsible for the lack of a budget being hashed out earlier this year. Don't you see, both House and Senate Republicans played all sorts of procedural games to refuse to enter in conference over spending? They were demanding preconditions, the bastards, and the Democrats didn't want any. That means that it is all the GOP's fault (but not, one presumes, when Obama refuses to negotiate over passing continuing resolutions or debt-limit increases). As Chait writes,

Senate Democrats have spammed my e-mail in-box pleading for a budget conference on a near-daily basis. House Republicans refused because their strategy is not to negotiate through regular order but to use the threat of a shutdown and debt default to leverage unilateral concessions.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that it is true that Republicans were just waiting for the moment when Democrats in the Senate finally got around to passing a budget after years of screwing off and giving interviews about fake forthcoming budget documents. It isn't true—though as I noted in my column, the GOP is not blameless in plugging up things— but even if it were, it really doesn't matter to the argument I was making.

Of course the Republicans are trying to bust Obama's—and the Democrats'—balls. Politics ain't beanbag and all that. So what? Obama could have and should have jawboned all involved to work something out. That wouldn't have necessarily meant going Al Capone on anyone. He might have had to "offer" up something (horrors!) in exchange for cooperation. He might have pulled back on taxes or spending or the Keystone XL pipeline. He might have gone directly to the American people and gotten us to squeeze recalcitrant Republicans with our anger or sour tweets, or he might have peeled off some Republican squishes and flipped the four Democrats who voted against the Senate plan. There must have been something he could have done—we're talking about Barack Obama, after all, Lord of the Beer Summit, after all, and not just some mere mortal! 

But he didn't do any of that, nor did he manage to get the Democratic Senate to pass a budget resolution for years before this spring. Even back in 2010, when both houses of Congress were held by his own party. But you gotta understand, back then the Dems were too busy waiting for the big National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform proposal to really focus on, you know, jumping through procedural hoops like cooking up budget proposals. And the Republicans? They're just too crazy, or insane, or powerful, or too political or something. Because CITIZENS UNITED! KOCH BROTHERS! FOX NEWS! Otherwise, it just doesn't make sense that Barack Obama—such a uniter that he passed Obamacare with all those Republican votes—couldn't get the job done.

From the perspective of someone interested in reducing the size, scope, and spending of government, Obama's inability to finish isn't such a bad thing. Since 2009 (which includes spending under Bush and Obama, including part of his stimulus), real per capita spending has been basically flat or even down a bit. The failure of the deficit super-committee led to sequestration in the here and now instead of probably working out some sort of deal to cut spending 1,000 years from now. Here's hoping that spending's high point was indeed reached in 2009 and that we might start freeing up money wasted by the government for more productive uses by folks digging life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever the hell they want to peacefully pursue. Man, look up at the chart above—there is just so much wasted money and lives trapped in those record-setting, post-Clinton spikes, both red and blue.

But the idea that Obama couldn't cut a deal or push a budget because the GOP would have forced him to bargain is just special pleading at its worst. And it certainly won't matter to anyone in the future looking back on how the wheels went off so many things during the Age of Obama.