Ideology vs Idiocy: The Shutdown Showdown

BY Gwen Ifill  April 8, 2011 at 11:42 AM EDT

As the shutdown showdown approached its third or fourth climax late this week, I found myself in Flint, Mich., the former General Motors manufacturing powerhouse, where the unemployment rate still stands at nearly 12 percent and people can be forgiven for casting a skeptical eye on government.

But I was far enough away from Washington that I thought this would be a good time to test a pet hypothesis. The hysteria over the standoff threatening to cripple the national government was, I was convinced, a Washington obsession.

As each day passed within the federal city, the rhetorical assault and counter-assault were getting out of control. By Thursday, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was calling the prospect of a shutdown “the functional equivalent of bombing innocent civilians.”

Over the top? I thought so.

So I directed a question to two separate audiences during my visit to Flint — one comprised mostly of University of Michigan-Flint students; the other mostly older members of the surrounding community.

“Are you paying any attention at all to the shutdown story?” I asked.

To my surprise, most of the hands in both audiences shot up. I was so surprised that I asked whether they were following or paying attention because they agreed with the ideology behind it, or because they thought the whole debate was political idiocy.

“Idiocy!” several people called out. (OK, I admit how unlikely it was that anyone in any context would every yell the word “ideology.” But still.)

The reaction in Michigan, which staggered through its own $2.8 billion deficit and partial state government shutdown in 2009, provides a cautionary tale to politicians like 2008 GOP Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin, who tweeted on Thursday, “Let him shut it,” when speaking of the president’s threat to veto a temporary spending bill.

But it also sends up a flare to Democrats, who came dangerously close this week to looking gleeful at the prospect of a shutdown.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who is the Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, sounded as if he was reciting from a playbook just out of camera range when he told me on the PBS NewsHour that the entire mess could be blamed on the Tea Party freshmen who were forcing House Speaker John Boehner into an ideological corner over social issues.

“They have taken the position that they want 100 percent their way, or they’re going to shut down the government. They don’t want any compromises, even if it means that we would be able to keep the government going. And that’s where we are right now,” Van Hollen said Wednesday.

And on Thursday, the Office of Management and Budget was circulating a deeply bureaucratic, but apparently necessary, document explaining what agencies should prepare for if the government funding — in OMB speak — “lapses.” (Taxpayers could be forgiven for wondering if all that energy might be better spent elsewhere.)

It’s probably important to remember there is nothing new under the sun. Charlie Sheen is not the first Hollywood bad boy to receive inexplicable and undue international attention. If the government shuts down, this won’t be the first time my trash isn’t picked up. And this will be neither the first –nor the last– time that lawmakers will have played craps on budget issues and lost.

When the government shut down after a similar showdown in 1995, the chief combatants were a Democratic president — Bill Clinton — and a Republican Speaker of the House — Newt Gingrich.

And this is what longtime Washington Week panelist Steve Roberts said on the air back then: “As one Democrat said to me today: ‘Is Newt Gingrich the captain of the freshmen? Is he really leading them? Or is he the captive of the freshmen? Are they leading him?’”

Takes some of the drama out of standoff, doesn’t it?

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.