Government Shutdown: What Would Lincoln Say?

It would be nice if Republicans would occasionally listen to the words of their party's first president.

Abraham Lincoln, February 27, 1860:

"Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as yours is, shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action? But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, 'Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!'"

While we are fortunate to live at a time when the government is merely shut down instead of violently torn asunder, the logical fallacies that were once used to intimidate Republicans from holding office are now being used against progressive Democrats.

Bear in mind that the only reason the government is shutting down is that House Republicans, led by Speaker John Boehner, refused to pass the Constitutionally-required legislation continuing state funding unless portions of the Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as Obamacare) were altered and/or delayed. Even though there were enough moderate Republicans to join House Democrats in supporting a bill to keep the government funded, Speaker Boehner succumbed to pressure from radical wings in his party to shut down the state by not even allowing the chamber vote to be held. Instead, he insisted that the Senate — which is controlled by Democrats — to agree to defund large sections of Obamacare, lest they be blamed for America's first government shutdown in nearly 18 years.

One can see why the logical perversion identified by Lincoln comes to mind.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this incident is the inability of its culprits to understand why they are so flagrantly in the wrong. When confronted, conservatives and libertarians who support the shutdown will invariably go off on jeremiads about the evils of Obamacare, social welfare programs, excessive government spending, and any other progressive bugaboos they can yank up from the morass of rightist ideological dogma. To them, the issue is that of socialism versus free enterprise, statism versus freedom ... in short, good versus evil.

In fact, this is a question of whether political maturity will triumph over juvenile temper tantrums.

What the rightists are willfully failing to see is that, while fierce ideological disputes can and will erupt in every phase of our history, it is essential that the basic functions of government proceed despite those disagreements. Progressive Democrats may have disagreed with President George W. Bush over his tax and war policies, but they never threatened to grind the state to a halt unless they got their way. This isn't because they cared any less than their rightist counterparts, or were any less certain that they were in the right; rather, they understood that it is morally wrong to toss thousands of people out of work and jeopardize the quality of life for millions more in the name of the partisan disagreements that inevitably arise in politics. Not only does this put innocents in the line of ideological fire, but it undermines the social contract without which any kind of stable social order becomes impossible.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is that, despite the widespread right-wing effort to pin the blame on Obama, Americans aren't being fooled. When asked who they blame for this mess, 46% point the finger at Republicans in Congress, compared to 36% who blame Obama and 13% who blame both sides. Similarly, when asked which side they would liken to a "spoiled child," they were roughly split on how they felt about Obama (49% called him a "responsible adult" and 47% compared him to a brat), while they were overwhelmingly condemning toward the GOP (69% compared them to spoiled children and only 25% felt they were acting like responsible adults). Indeed, even though most Americans disapprove of some or all of the Affordable Care Act, an overwhelming 60% believed it was more important to approve a budget agreement, with a mere 34% feeling a government shutdown could be justified in the name of stopping it (other polls indicate that up to 72% of Americans oppose the government shutdown).

Whether they like it or not, Republicans need to accept that the Affordable Care Act was passed through the same methods used by both parties to pass laws that were important to them throughout our nation's history. If they wish to fight for its repeal within the parameters of responsible governance, fine. Progressives will naturally oppose them in that endeavor, but few outside the fringe would ever challenge the legitimacy of their attempts to do so. The issue here is not that they oppose Obamacare, but rather that they're behaving like Lincoln's hypothetical highwayman in order to get their way.

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Matthew Rozsa

is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published in "The Morning Call," "The Express-Times," "The Newark Star-Ledger," "The Baltimore Sun," and various college newspapers and blogs. I actively encourage people to reach out to me at matt.rozsa@gmail.com.

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