White House Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Burwell sent out a memo instructing agency heads not to consider whether the cost of shutting down a government website is more expensive than keeping it running.
As the partial government shutdown headed into the weekend, Organizing for Action, Barack Obama’s permanent campaign operation, urged followers to use Twitter to send a message to House Speaker John Boehner: “Enough Already!”
“Speaker Boehner can end the shutdown right now,” OFA told its followers. “Tweet at him to make sure he knows we’re going to be holding him accountable for trying to sabotage the economy.”
This message went out the day after Obama’s own blistering attack on the GOP, in which he insisted shrilly that House Republicans—he named Boehner specifically—were solely to blame for the shutdown. If the president’s appearance in Rockville, Md., had all the trappings of a campaign speech, that’s exactly what it was. The question is why: Barack Obama, after all, isn’t running for office again.
Democrats will tell you that all they are doing is pushing Boehner and other sensible Republicans toward where they want to go anyway, which is capitulation. Democrats say time is on their side, as are the public opinion polls, so what’s the harm in applying a little pressure? Privately, many Democrats also concede that they have no desire to negotiate because the longer this mess goes on, the worse Republicans will do in the 2014 midterm elections.
Whether that belief proves true or not, the second explanation is what’s really happening in Washington this week. The Democrats, it should be said, are enjoying themselves.
Modern liberals like to think of themselves as good doobies who love government and governing as a way of helping people. They engage in the necessary evil of campaigning only reluctantly, they tell you, as a means to a higher purpose. Oh, how we wish we had a Lee Atwater! they cried after George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis. Please, Lord, send us a progressive Karl Rove! they prayed after Bush’s son became a two-term president.
Their self-portrait was quite a stretch. There were always Democratic versions of Atwater and Rove, some of whom were quite effective. Democrats from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter ran tough, sometimes vicious campaigns—losing some, winning others.
One defeat stuck in Democrats’ collective craws, however, and that was Dukakis’ 1988 loss. Mike Dukakis is a perfectly nice guy, but in hindsight it seems odd to imagine that the only way Democrats could accept the 1988 election result was to convince themselves that the election was stolen. Not stolen by fraud, but by passivity.
While the Atwater-led Republicans were bashing Dukakis for pollution in Boston Harbor, vetoing legislation requiring teachers to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance, and mismanaging the Massachusetts prison furlough program, Dukakis was stumbling around, giving nuanced answers to every difficult question. That’s how Democrats remember it, anyway. (I covered that campaign and recall Democrats shrieking that Bush was a racist for even mentioning Willie Horton, the furloughed Massachusetts lifer who terrorized a couple in Maryland.)
In any event, when it was over, Democrats decided as an article of faith that they’d never be out-Atwatered again. This new determination resulted in campaign “war rooms,” “rapid response” teams, and “permanent campaigns.”
Under James Carville, Paul Begala & Co., Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign team had a series of mantras:
Define your candidate before they do. While you’re at it, define their candidate, too. Let no allegation go unchallenged. If the other side needles you, slap them. If they slap you, punch them. If they punch you back, punch harder. If they use a knife, use a gun. And don’t wait to play defense: If you even think they are going to attack, attack them first. Come to think of it, don’t wait—just attack them anyway.
This kind of campaigning has its advantages, as none other than Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (and, yes, George W. Bush) can attest. But winning that way makes governing more difficult.
For starters, those on the losing end aren’t inclined to work in harmony with a president (or a political party) who won in this fashion. Such suspicion can be overcome, as Clinton showed on NAFTA, but only when oiled with the dual lubricants of bipartisanship and compromise—and that’s important: NAFTA was the signature domestic policy initiative of Bill Clinton’s first term. The Affordable Care Act was Obama’s.
That’s a big difference, but there’s an even more fundamental consequence of bare-knuckles campaigning: It’s addictive. Obama won the presidency in 2008 with an aspirational appeal. To retain the presidency, however, he and his lieutenants ran a low and mean-spirited campaign that sought to make Mitt Romney seem an unfit human being, while delegitimizing his political party.
This approach has inevitably spilled over into governing. I understand that the president is frustrated about Republicans’ refusals to fund Obamacare. I share his dissatisfaction. But I also believe a president is obliged by custom, law, and the U.S. Constitution to try and make the best of things. Instead, it seems his administration has tried to make matters worse.
Sealing up the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial—they are normally never closed—takes more federal manpower, not less. Democrats’ refusal to vote for Republican-sponsored bills that would keep the entire national park system open—as well as spending for the District of Columbia and veterans’ programs—what is that?
The answer came in a memo from White House Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Burwell providing guidance to federal agencies and departments. Aside from prefacing this Sept. 17 memo with a political talking point (Congress is to blame, not the administration), she instructs agency heads not to consider whether the cost of shutting down a government website is more expensive than keeping it running.
And that, not Tea Party intractability, is why Yosemite’s website has been down since last week.
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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Editor of RealClearPolitics. Mr. Cannon is a past recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Distinguished Reporting and the Aldo Beckman Award, the two most prestigious awards for White House coverage.