By Denise Dunbar
If you live long enough in the shadow of the nation’s capital, you witness much that is historic and inspiring — as well as repugnant.
During my almost 30 years in Alexandria, the two best examples of courageous political actions with long-lasting, positive effects that I can recall are: former President Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech in 1987 and former President Bill Clinton’s signing of the 1996 welfare reform bill into law over strong objections from many in his party.
Both are examples of statesmanship and strong American leadership. Reagan’s courage in confronting Communism, a political system that he considered evil, was a major factor in the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union. Clinton’s decision to sign the bipartisan bill reforming an outdated and counterproductive welfare system instilled a work-first culture in the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. He stood firm in the face of criticism — and the new program worked.
Fast forward to this year and this week’s government shutdown. There’s nary a statesman in sight. Democrats and Republicans have let the American public down.
On the Democratic side, there’s President Barack Obama, who has raised the level of acrimony in Washington to levels not seen in my lifetime. Our president considers political opponents who hold views different from his own as enemies. He doesn’t just oppose policies held by Republicans — he denigrates their motives. He has belittled the presidency with his strident partisanship.
The aptly nicknamed Obamacare, the program at the heart of this government shutdown, was the most significant piece of legislation passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unfortunately, it was an entirely partisan piece of legislation.
It passed without a single Republican vote and was rammed through on a technicality — remember reconciliation? — after Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts won the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy.
This surprise victory left the Democrats with only 59 votes, not enough to defeat a Republican filibuster. The way this bill passed stunk at the time, and it’s only become more noxious as new health care policies become implemented.
Despite all of that, I’m even angrier with the Republicans. They are obsessed with Obamacare to the exclusion of all else. This legislation did pass Congress, and it did withstand a legal challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
As Chief Justice John Roberts said in his majority opinion that upheld the law, “Elections have consequences.” Obamacare is the major consequence of the 2008 election. It should be funded and become law.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are leading from behind by following the lead of the most radical members of their caucus, because they don’t have the votes to oppose them. Many Republicans are grandstanding for personal political purposes, no one more so than the increasingly buffoonish Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who seems to think this shutdown is going to launch him to the presidency.
And that’s really the problem. Everyone in Washington seems to be working for their own ends, leaving no one willing to pull a Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan and do what’s best for America.
Policy differences should not be a zero-sum game; there is wisdom and room for compromise on both sides. With apologies to an old Pete Seeger song,
“Where have all the statesmen gone?”
– The writer is the publisher of the Alexandria Times.