Politics, at least for our stunted, prefabricated age, has been conducted in particularly colorful language in the past few weeks. At times, the accusations have been so various that it has been difficult to distinguish between the mere insults and the wildly over-the-top slurs. But, as the Republican party’s quixotic stand on principle has turned into an actual federal shutdown, the reflexive rudeness has given way to deeper charges, among which is a new meme: that the House’s intransigent behavior is akin to “nullification.”
This imputation consists of more than just rhetorical fluff. On his website two weeks ago, Andrew Sullivan set forth a rather dramatic interpretation of the shutdown:
This is not about ending Obamacare as such (although that is a preliminary scalp); it is about nullifying this presidency, the way the GOP attempted to nullify the last Democratic presidency by impeachment.
Sullivan was expressing a view that has gained a certain currency on the left. Salon’s Michael Lind contended at length a fortnight ago that the Tea Party “should be called the Fort Sumter movement.” This is a theme that ThinkProgress’s Zack Beauchamp copied rather poorly in his own jumping-on-the-bandwagon essay a few days later, and which MSNBC has been trying to sell for the better part of a year.
Such ham-fisted attempts to understand why the American system of government yields conflict and not comity almost make one long for the catch-all distaste of a Chris Hayes or a Dylan Matthews, both of whom have noticed that the Constitution is intrinsically built to divide power, and that the discord it inevitably yields is not an aberrant development of recent years but the obvious product of its design. To understand the American system is to grasp that our current impasse is by no means exceptional, and, in consequence, that there is little point in wasting time looking around for bogeymen or ghosts when the culprit is there in plain sight. If you want to blame someone for our problems, it should be James Madison, not John Calhoun.
There have been 17 shutdowns before this one, and a host of debt-ceiling fights to boot. Some of these happened during periods of divided government; others happened during periods of unified government. All told, they are a bipartisan game, although it seems that Democrats prefer to shut down things more than Republicans do. Fifteen of America’s previous funding gaps occurred when Democrats controlled the House, and five of them came to pass while Democrats ran every single branch of government. Some progressives like simplistically to claim that America’s two parties “switched places” in 1964 — a trade leading to the predominance of racist white southerners in the GOP eager to burn down the government to get what they wanted. If so, then one has to wonder why the vast majority of funding gaps occurred at the insistence of the good guys in what, by the time the first such gap came along in 1976, was allegedly the New Democratic party.
Funnily enough, progressives never address this question, nor do they acknowledge that the first real debt-limit fight happened in 1953, when President Eisenhower was “held hostage” by his own party, which at that point was popular pretty much everywhere except for the Old South that we are told has risen anew under under Gadsden flags rather than white hoods. Indeed, if staunch congressional opposition, government shutdowns, and high-profile debt-limit fights are now to be cast as examples of nullification, then Congress has evidently tried to nullify not only the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but also those of Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.
Of course, a muscular Congress does not equal “nullification” at all. At the rotten philosophical root of the claim that it does is the peculiar idea that the Republican House’s steadfast opposition to Obamacare is inappropriate because Obama was reelected as the head of the executive branch and the Democratic party retained control of the Senate. Leaving aside the salient facts that Obamacare remains unpopular nationally — and that 34 of the 50 states declined to set up exchanges for the law — this conclusion is constitutionally and historically confused. Contrary to the claims of progressives nationwide, there simply is no such thing as a “referendum election” on a law. And, even if there were, it would be downright weird to claim that the 2012 election — which returned divided government, not unified government — can plausibly be construed to be one.
Moreover, the argument that the modern GOP is attempting to nullify the most recent election result simply doesn’t stand up to historically minded scrutiny. In 1984, in one of the most stunning landslide victories in American history, Ronald Reagan won 49 states. Simultaneously, the Democrats retained control of the House. If they are to be consistent, the “nullification” brigade would have to argue that Tip O Neill’s trenchant and persistent opposition to many of Reagan’s initiatives — which, remember, led to eight shutdowns in total — served as some sort of insurgency. Is this their position?