Now that the latest episode of government-by-crisis is over, for the moment, it’s obvious that the entire spectacle was totally unnecessary. The Affordable Care Act, the Republican target of this failed gambit, survived unscathed and opponents have little to show for bringing the nation to the brink of default.
That should be one of the big lessons of the government shutdown: The only way to change a law is through the political and legislative process that has served this nation well for centuries. That means winning elections and engaging in the customary business of voting for or against bills in Congress, not throwing tantrums.
Resorting to extreme methods like closing the government and threatening to renege on the debt to change the law is an unworkable tactic. It might please a narrow political base, but it’s unpopular with everyone else.
Republicans are getting most of the blame because voters believe that keeping the government open is a fundamental responsibility of their elected representatives. Imagine that.
Another lesson worth keeping in mind is that closing the government and threatening to default causes real and lasting damage.
Sure, national parks have reopened and furloughed workers will get back pay. But businesses that rely on tourists won’t get all the money those visitors didn’t spend when the parks were closed. Billions in retail sales never happened because workers were left without paychecks and had to forgo purchases.
Americans who rely on government services of all kinds, from veterans to children in Head Start programs, were also left in the lurch. Consumer confidence suffered, the credibility of the American economy was weakened and the borrowing ability of the U.S. government eroded because faith in the dollar as the world’s most reliable currency was questioned around the globe and at home. And for what?
There were no winners in this shoddy display of government dysfunction, except possibly for a bipartisan group of five women in the Senate who came up with a compromise offer days before the default deadline. They showed the good old boys how the game is supposed to be played.
On the other side were hard-liners like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who voted against the eventual deal to reopen the government. That’s a disappointment. We expected better of Mr. Rubio, who should bear in mind that he represents one of the biggest and most diverse states in the country rather than a partisan faction that puts a premium on ideological rigidity.
President Obama was able to hold onto his signature legislative act, healthcare reform, but he did little to burnish his leadership credentials. His best chance to regain the initiative is to undertake a campaign to bring down the deficit and national debt.
That is the fundamental dispute between Democrats and Republicans. Mr. Obama has an obligation to strive for a budget deal with his political adversaries, but he must be willing to get his hands dirty in deal-making rather than assuming his usual above-the-fray stance.
That puts an equal obligation on Republican leaders like Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to show flexibility, just as Mr. McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid had to be willing to work with each other to avoid the catastrophe of a default.
That may be the most important lesson of this whole ugly mess. In a divided government, it takes compromise to reach a sensible and successful outcome.