Believe it or not, but there's a very reasonable debate at the heart of the current partial government shutdown, as well as the coming contest about raising the debt ceiling. You wouldn't know that from the rhetoric coming from politicians and pundits, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives, liberals, and progressives, who are largely describing the debate as something more sinister.
Basically, you could say that this is a debate between those who are more worried about paying our bills in the short term versus those who are more worried about paying our bills in the long term.
Democrats have some good points to make. It we don't provide funding for the federal government, important services will be unfulfilled and the economy may slow down even further. And if we don't raise the debt ceiling, the U.S. won't be able to pay several of its bills — from Social Security checks to interest on our debt — which would do more of the same harm as well as damaging our financial standing in international markets.
Moreover, by trying to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, AKA "Obamacare," Republicans would be shutting down a program that will help many people with one of their largest and scariest costs: health care. Defunding the government as a whole will create all sorts of damage immediately just as defunding Obamacare will deprive many Americans of a way to get health care coverage in the near future.
At the same time, Republicans have many good points to make about our long-term financial situation. The U.S. government currently borrows money in order to pay its bills (including earlier borrowing), and our debt has been growing faster than our economy. In the next decade or so, the federal budget will be put under even greater strain as an aging population requires even more spending, particularly in the form of Social Security and Medicare. The longer we avoid dealing with our budget problems, the worse the solutions are, and the more likely we won't have the money to pay for the programs people rely on.
But it's not just that we've been putting our budget problems off — "kicking the can down the road" — for years. We've arguably made things worse. Obamacare may help a lot of people, but it will also spend a lot of money. If it winds up running over-budget — and government-run health care programs are notorious for doing just that — then Obamacare will yield even more fiscal trouble.
Democrats, then, are trying to prevent Republicans from causing the country significant financial and economic damage in the short-term, while Republicans are willing to risk that damage if it forces us to take steps to avoid even worse damage in the long-term. This is oversimplifying things a bit, but it comes down to a fairly common question we all face in some form or other: Which is worse, the short-term pain or the long-term pain? These sorts of questions are always difficult, because they involve predicting the uncertain future.
But in the political arena, people are often reluctant to credit their opponents with having any sense or good intentions. Instead, Democrats and their allies are demonizing Republicans as anarchists and arsonists, as people who don't care about the country, as hostage-taking suicide bombers who are rooting for failure, who don't want people to get health care, etc. And Republicans and their allies are demonizing Democrats as Marxist communists who want the nation to go into decline, who want to create a mass of people who are dependent on government aid and, therefore, subservient.
To make matters worse, neither side owns up to its own contribution to the poisonous atmosphere. Rush Limbaugh says it's only liberals who engage in name-calling in order to win arguments, not him. And President Barack Obama insists that he's been careful to tone down his rhetoric, that it's only other people who indulge in caricature, distortion, and invective. But, in fact, each of them is leading movements filled with people who resort to the language of demonization. Each side's partisans are outraged at the name-calling coming from their opponents while deaf to the name-calling from their own mouths.
This doesn't bode well at all. On the purely fiscal front, we're likely to get the worst of both worlds from this: short-term damage to our economy without any plan to resolve our long-term budgetary problems.
Worse, though, we're continuing to nurture a political climate in which reasonable disagreements are caricatured as contests of the good and the rational against the evil and irrational. Our financial problems are hard enough to fix without the reflexive insistence that our opponents are people who are either stupid or who consciously want to do the wrong thing.
Politics should make us better people, not worse. We need civil debate that enlightens our understanding and inspires our virtue, not debate that vents our frustration and incites our hatred and anger. If our leaders won't give us that, we need to choose new leaders.