The upside of the shutdown — revealing where power really lies


The great government shutdown in Washington has turned out to have its uses after all.

It prompted a substantial debate about the role of government in our nation. It spurred an unusual surge of conversation about Congress, with Americans conducting a national civics lesson and actually examining the performance of their representatives.

It raised eternal questions about the balance between conviction and compromise, about the equilibrium between resolve and responsibility. And it illuminated several important themes about American governance that sometimes are explored in isolation, but seldom in broad context.

So, a muted cheer for all of those who stuck to their guns while endangering the nation’s image, financial stability, and role in the world. They shined a bright light on these immutable elements of our system:

● The split between the House and the Senate. They are entirely different bodies, and not only because they operate with different rules.

Sometimes, the two chambers move in the same direction. But oftentimes, they don’t, or they at least move at different speeds with different timbres. The intensity of the Senate’s willingness to defund the Vietnam war in the 1970s, for example, wasn’t matched by the House.

This autumn, the two bodies are showing their character, the Senate displaying the power of an individual (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas) to dominate proceedings, the House reminding us that it is ruled by coalitions (the Tea Party). This is only heightened by the fact that the two chambers are ruled by different parties.

● The view of the national interest. It is different from the heights of the Capitol than it is 16 blocks away in the White House.

In many respects, Senate Democrats and President Obama have the same strategy: to hang tough while Tea Party Republicans appear to hang themselves. That is a good strategy while the poll numbers hang high. Once they drop, that strategy will be dropped too.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada — and to a lesser extent, because she has less power, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California — have a slightly different perspective.

The Tea Partiers are their opponents, but they are also colleagues. This spending/​debt-ceiling crisis is kind of like the Dual Monarchy of Capitol Hill, with all the attendant proclivity to catastrophe possessed by Austria-Hungary a century ago.

But someday, this struggle will end, or morph into something else. President Obama will be gone from Washington in three years. Many of today’s lawmakers will be in the capital for years to come.

Mr. Obama may think he is playing for the long term, but his only long term consists of the quiet pages — or Web pages — of history. The others look to a noisy future, hostages not so much to history as to each other.

● Establishment figures. These figures would have put an end to this nonsense, but there is no Establishment anymore.

This new truth of American politics first became evident in 1984, when the establishment figure in the Democratic Party, former senator and Vice President Walter Mondale, barely limped to nomination. It became clearer in 2008, when the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, wife of a president and a senator from a powerhouse state, was defeated by an insurgent.

This insurgent was born in a country that doubted any black person could be elected president. He had the additional disadvantage of having almost no experience in high office.

But disestablishmentarianism — a term rooted in 18th century English church history, a stumper beloved by lexicological wise guys and a word I finally found a legitimate use for — became a bipartisan phenomenon a year ago. There were no adults to halt the GOP’s determination to endanger if not doom the inevitable nominee, Mitt Romney. His political death was assisted suicide.

Now there is no Washington establishment to end the paralysis, which went from the fiscal cliff of New Year’s to the continuing resolution crisis of late September to the October hurricane of the debt ceiling.

● Power. Sometimes, power resides outside elected office. We are not speaking here of the people in whose interests Washington is supposed to work. We are speaking of unelected power brokers who, throughout American history, have exerted outsized influence.

In the past, they have been figures such as Jay Gould, whose analogues today are on Wall Street. Or church figures, such as Jonathan Edwards of the Great Awakening.

Today’s outsiders command big money and big megaphones. This month, a Bloomberg Businessweek cover thumped these words: “John Boehner doesn’t run Congress. Meet the man who does.”

And there, on page 71, was a picture of former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, now the head of the Heritage Foundation.

He’s not alone. And he’s not in elected office.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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