Budget Fight, Obamacare Are Political Perfect Storm Policy Duel Showcases Cultural Tensions and Debates Long Disrupting America

By Nancy Benac; Calvin Woodward | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), October 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Budget Fight, Obamacare Are Political Perfect Storm Policy Duel Showcases Cultural Tensions and Debates Long Disrupting America


Nancy Benac; Calvin Woodward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


WASHINGTON -- It's a political perfect storm: The pairing of a government shutdown with the rollout of a big chunk of the health care law is illustrating all sorts of partisan and cultural tensions that are roiling the United States. Big government vs. small. The Republican Party's identity crisis. Sharpening political divisions among Americans. And plenty more.

How big is too big?

Dueling images of the government powering itself down, just as Americans for the first time are logging on to Obamacare's new health insurance exchanges, bring into high relief a debate Americans have been having since the birth of the nation. How much government do we really need? How much is too much?

The Founding Fathers rejected the tyranny of kings and apportioned powers among Congress, the states, the executive and the courts in a balance that Americans of diverse beliefs have argued over ever since.

Ronald Reagan famously declared government the problem, not the solution -- then added to its size. Bill Clinton announced the end of the era of big government -- and pared it back. Barack Obama won election twice by holding out the promise of an activist government that could do much more for its citizens.

Now, Republicans have turned Obamacare into a political metaphor for what they hold out as Washington's heavy hand.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said people in his state are telling him that if shutting things down "is the only way to stop the runaway train called the federal government, then we're willing to try it."

Others question whether it's a fair fight. "There are no Republicans who talk about Obamacare as anything other than socialized medicine, a government takeover of the health care system," says Colby College government professor Calvin Mackenzie in Maine. "Anybody who's studied Obamacare would find that a hard conclusion to draw."

GOP soul-searching

Sure, there's a huge clash between Republicans and Democrats unfolding in Washington. But the more interesting struggle is playing out within the Republican Party, whose Tea Party faction is forcing even fellow conservatives to tack farther right and making it harder for Congress to find common ground on all sorts of big issues, not just the budget.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was reluctant to provoke a shutdown, but ultimately bowed to pressure from Tea Partiers in his caucus insistent on linking the fight over Obamacare with financing the government.

Mr. Obama put the blame for Washington's paralysis all on "one faction of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government." Though an oversimplification, it summed up the roiling divisions in the Capitol and within the GOP. It laid bare the sense among Democrats that the Tea Party is not just an opposing force, but a corrosive one.

There are plenty of Republicans who are fine with a government shutdown. But others in the GOP worry that the party is heading for a repeat of the 2012 elections, in which GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and numerous conservative candidates for Congress didn't have enough appeal with moderates to produce GOP victories.

The health care dilemma

The president accuses GOP critics of Obamacare of trying to keep people uninsured; Republicans say they're waging a principled fight against a mammoth government overreach.

At the heart of Obamacare are complicated questions of what kind of health care Americans are entitled to, how much they should have to pay and how to rein in the huge share of U. …

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