Gwen’s Take: Déjà vu All Over Again

Posted: Thu, 10/03/2013 - 4:01pm

If it seems like we’ve been here before, you are not hallucinating.

The president, on the stump once again this week, is accusing Republicans of gross irresponsibility.

“You don’t get to demand ransom for doing your most basic job!” President Obama said at an outdoor rally Thursday before workers affected by the shutdown.

The president indicated little movement towards a deal to reopen the government in a speech on Thursday [Photo: CNN].

Republicans say the president is force feeding bad policy to America.

“We must also not forget what we are fighting for: fairness and equal treatment under the law,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told fellow Republicans in a strategy memo published in National Review. “Under Obamacare – which is now coming into effect – the Obama Administration has created thousands of special carve-outs for special interests.”

And a brash group of young conservatives is threatening to tip all the usual Washington deal-making apparatus into the drink.

The back and forth is kind of gripping. World War II veterans storm their closed monument. Early evening meetings at the White House reveal more heat than light. Both sides use words like “obsession” and “reckless” to describe the other.

Elderly veterans pushed past barricades at the National World War II Memorial on Tuesday [Photo:CNN].

Every morning Senate Chaplain Barry Black kicks off a new day of futility with prayers like the one he delivered Thursday morning: "Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable."

I’m old enough and have been in Washington long enough to have ridden this merry-go-round before, but it was helpful to discover actual evidence of it in the Washington Week vault.

In November of 1995, the government lurched into a two-step shutdown – one that lasted five days, and a second one that spanned the holidays and stretched into the New Year. Four days after the first one kicked in, my predecessor Ken Bode gathered three great Washington reporters around his Friday night table to ask the same questions I am asking today.

Former Washington Week moderator Ken Bode (right) talks to Alan Murray, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, about the 1995 government shutdown [Photo: Washington Week]

From Alan Murray, then of the Wall Street Journal: “The nastiness that we’ve seen in the past week, the personal invectiveness on both sides, the pettiness…and to some degree, the inflexibility on both sides, raises very serious questions about whether they can cut such a monumental deal this year, or whether they’re going to fight it out and let it be decided by the 1996 elections.”

From Bode: “If this government is shutting down because the Congress and the president can’t make a deal, why are they paying themselves?”

From Steve Roberts, then of U.S. News & World Report: “I’ve covered many of these over the years, and there’s a level of nastiness, and a level of partisanship that I have not quite seen before.”

Even in the Capitol lunchroom, Roberts said, Democrats and Republicans wouldn’t sit together. “Both sides think they’re playing a winning political hand, so there’s not much leverage on them to compromise,” Steve added. “But the whole idea of compromise has become so devalued in this city and you have people on both sides of the aisle saying compromise is the equivalent of selling out, or caving in or betraying.”

Mara Liasson of NPR and Steve Roberts, formerly of U.S. News & World Report [Photo: Washington Week].

And Mara Liasson of NPR, who was covering the Clinton White House, explained why the president felt he needed to play hard ball.

“This president had some very special imperatives,” she said. “He had to look strong, look like he had a backbone, because that was a particular problem for him. Because he was seen as a compromiser, and (then-House Speaker) Newt Gingrich was seen as a real hard line guy, the president was actually given a pass by the public – at least in the early stages of this – and I think he’s accomplished something. That can’t go on forever.”

Seventeen years later, it all sounds awfully familiar. The players may have changed, but the state of play has not.

Each side is still fighting for credibility. As the markets begin to wobble and Americans assign blame, the winner of this battle will be the party that most appears to be standing on principle. (The GOP lost that fight last time.)

But it remains a mystery whether there is any high ground left to be found in a city that becomes only more confounding by the day.

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