by Donna Brazile
(CNN) — As Senate negotiators, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell huddle for another day to avoid the nation’s default this week, we’ll know in a few days if Congress — more accurately, House Republicans — will choose to plunge this nation into a second recession, possibly triggering a global financial meltdown, or agree to compromise.
In a marble hallway of the Capitol, the Ohio clock that has kept time outside the Senate chamber for nearly 200 years, stopped ticking. It’s not just symbolic, but a result of the John Boehner-led government shutdown. The Senate curators who wind the clock have been furloughed.
There are many lessons and cautionary tales to be learned from where we are. I want to focus on three.
First, “since the modern congressional budgeting process took effect in 1976, there have been 17 government shutdowns.” (Almost half — eight — occurred while Ronald Reagan was President.) Some of them only lasted a few days. But the nature of shutdowns has changed: they’ve gone from squabbles to policy. Constitutional brinksmanship has become a political tactic of the Republican Party.
The shutdowns of ’95 and ’96 were a prologue to the shutdowns of 2011 and 2013. In the ’90s, Newt Gingrich (then the speaker of the House) got a lot of what he wanted, but his methods disgusted much of the country, and the Republicans took a hit in the polls. In 2011, Boehner boasted he got 98% of what he wanted, but the country firmly rejected the tactics of brinksmanship and bullying in the 2012 presidential election.
Obama, who had approached the budget negotiations believing that Republicans still thought “compromise” is an honorable word and a reasonable solution, learned otherwise. This time, he’s not negotiating with what are essentially extortionists.
Second, Abraham Lincoln’s adage still holds true: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
Experts are calling the Republican drop in the polls “jaw dropping” and “significant and consequential.” One Republican pollster said of the Republican Party’s 20-point poll gap: “This type of data creates ripples that will take a long time to resolve, and there will be unexpected changes we cannot predict at the moment.”
It’s not just the American public who see through the shill and extortion.
Rep. Devin Nunes of California calls some GOP colleagues “lemmings with suicide vests,” but he still votes with them. Several Republicans in Congress and six Republican governors have gone on record as opposing the shutdown.
Even the conservative pundits are appalled.
Charles Krauthammer called “defunding Obamacare misguided, going so far as to call them [House Republicans] the “suicide caucus.”
Bill O’Reilly warned against anti-Obamacare “hysteria” and told Republicans not to shut down the government, or “Washington would become Detroit, a place completely out of control.”
And Sean Hannity, of all people, has abandoned Boehner, telling his radio audience Friday that Boehner and the rest of the leadership team need to be replaced.
Third, this shutdown and looming default are part of a fight that goes beyond budgets and finances. The fight has two parts: How do we govern ourselves? And who are we?
Republicans lost the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012. They regained control of the House in 2010, but might well lose it in 2014. (In fact, had congressional districts not been monstrously gerrymandered, they probably would have lost control in 2012.)
Our Constitution provides pathways for minorities to express their opinions and have a voice in the political process. The old-fashioned way to change policy and change laws involves winning elections (fairly) and using genuine compromise for the greater good.
But Republicans in the House have chosen not to go that route, for two reasons.
First, because of cui bono — who benefits. The policy of shutdown, the politics of brinksmanship and extortion, benefits those who would profit from turning America into a de facto corporatist oligarchy. (Of course, a monster, once created, isn’t always easy to control.)
The second part of the fight is over demographics. America is changing. We are growing into our destiny of “equality for all,” becoming a diverse nation where neither race nor religion nor politics can stop a person from self-improvement.
As our nation changes from predominantly West European to a mixture that includes larger percentages of Asians, Africans and Hispanics, the demographic — and cultural — dynamics inevitably change as well.
Some people — about two-thirds of the Republican Party’s base — can’t handle that. They live in fear — an amorphous fear of labels (words such as “socialist” have voodoo-like power) and of “others.” It’s a fear preyed on and exaggerated. And all their fears have been transferred, scapegoat-like, onto Obamacare and the Democrats.
What Lincoln wrote to a Republican in Congress who feared a financial crisis if they didn’t compromise on slavery applies to the House Republicans’ attempted political extortion: “Let there be no compromise on the question. … If there be, all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must be done again. …Have none of it. Stand firm. The tug has to come, and better now, than any time hereafter.”
Editor’s note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pot in America.” She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.