EMPTY THREATS SEPTEMBER 30, 2013
On family road trips, when I was a bad boy, my father would sometimes threaten to stop the car and make me get out and walk. Eventually, since the gambit never worked, he moved to the next level, pulling over on the shoulder one day and forcing me, with strong language, to climb out. Then he pretended to drive away. The first time he did this, he didn’t go far—only twenty or thirty yards. It scared me. I ran after the car, but just that once. The next time he tried his disciplinary trick, he drove perhaps sixty yards, saw that I wasn’t budging, parked, stuck his head out his window, and yelled at me. I remained motionless—a standoff. Then, as I knew he’d have to, my father backed up.
Nothing is less suspenseful than a threat that threatens the maker of the threat at least as much as the subject of the threat. Congress hasn’t learned this yet, but America has learned it over and over. When I first read that the fight over Obamacare might lead to a shutdown of the federal government, I had a reaction that I’ll never forget. I was at home in Montana, at a diner, and someone had left a paper on the counter. I thought it was the paper from that morning, but when I saw the headline about the shutdown, I wondered if it was an issue dating back to the “fiscal cliff” negotiations of last winter. I was wrong. According to the story, the “looming” deadline was a new one, technically, meaning the latest in an endless series. It was also a false one, I found out. If the Obamacare argument was solved (or sidestepped, because in Washington these days only crossword puzzles are ever solved) another shutdown would “loom” a few weeks later, over the debt ceiling.
My reaction? None. I asked for a refill of my Diet Coke.
In Washington, it’s called political brinksmanship. Outside of Washington it’s called lunch time. It occurs every day, it seems, or very nearly so, and it has the all resonance and drama of a dropped napkin in a noisy restaurant. Like a dropped napkin, it is annoying, though—not the idea of a government shutdown but the idea that the idea of one is still considered ominous by those who regularly conjure it up.
For people who remember the last shutdown of 1995-96 (and I am not one of them, though I lived through it; my survival being the reason I don’t remember it) the prospect of another government closure may even hold a certain perverse nostalgia. In the Clinton-vs.-Gingrich years, when the size of the federal budget was still measurable using hypothetical stacks of one-hundred dollar bills that reached all the way to some known planet, it was possible to envision a shutdown as a meaningful political event. It meant something real and important was at stake, such as the balancing of the federal books. Not anymore. Both parties have made this balancing inconceivable, and neither one is arguing for it now. No, the latest shutdown showdown seems, at least in part, to be about the whether three years from now a freshman senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, will be on the presidential ballot.
Rarely has such great potential damage been threatened by so very few for so very little. The temptation is to blame Cruz himself, or the Tea Party types for whom he stands, for callously “holding hostage” those important but secondary government functions (passport issuance, National Park admission, public employee paycheck distribution, etc.) that might pause for a short while before our leaders shift into reverse. The real blame, however, lies elsewhere—with the parties' love of blame itself. The reason that last-ditch political maneuvering has become business as usual in Washington is that the actors involved are drunk on blame, and are convinced that the voting public is too. They count on outrage, thereby spreading numbness. They cherish the prospect of partisan fury, thereby inspiring nonpartisan disgust.
In Game Theory, "The Prisoners’ Dilemma" describes a situation in which two people—two suspected partners in crime, traditionally—seek to save their own respective necks by ratting each other out rather than protecting each other by remaining silent. The effect of the separate acts of blame is one combined confession, so to speak, and a conviction for both suspects. The political parties don’t fear this outcome, though, because they have good reason to believe that the potential agents of their punishment—the voters—will never act as one. They too can be sucked into the finger pointing, guaranteeing no final resolution, only some version of the rolling, endless, oxymoronic "continuing resolutions" of budget-battle infamy.
In the meantime, the suspense over the shutdowns has become, umm, bearable. Those who think they’re creating the tension don’t know this yet, and the real suspense is over what might teach them that permanent cliffhangers are ineffectual. Perhaps it’s time that the people shut down too, uniformly resisting the partisan invitations to phone and write their elected representatives. Sudden silence on the switchboards might wake up the mischief-makers in a way that manipulated fury never has. The public can exercise its option to stand in the road and answer crisis politics with resolute indifference. For now, this response might seem fantastic—the cataclysmic rhetoric from Washington still seems to be working on a few of us—but once a couple more looming shutdowns have passed, or have come to pass and been survived, the inertia will be reflexive and not an act.