Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Goes Around

Well, it’s the 1990s again.

How do I know it’s the 1990s again? Well, for one thing, the U.S. government has shut down. The last time that happened was during the Clinton Administration.

President Obama has been warning us how bad this will be for the economy. After all, after the last government shutdown, which began in December 1995, there was long-term devastation for the American economy. Remember? Oh, wait. Actually Bill Clinton’s second term saw what were arguably the best economic conditions in living memory. Of course, that wasn’t because of the shutdown. It was because of a number of government reforms that Clinton negotiated and implemented with Republicans after he was reelected.

Yeah, but Republicans will get the blame for this shutdown and be punished in next year’s midterm elections, right? Maybe. After all, Clinton did win reelection handily less than a year after the last shutdown. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that amiable, unexciting, middle-of-the-road Bob Dole would have done much better in that election even if the shutdown hadn’t happened.

In any event, the presidency isn’t on the ballot in the next election, which usually gives the opposition an advantage. And, if we look at the 1996 congressional election, we see that Republicans—although they did lose a few seats in the House of Representatives—controlled both houses before and after that post-shutdown election.

So basically everything the experts in the media keep telling us about what the shutdown means is wrong—at least historically. Even the bit about how federal employees will never get paid for the days of work they will miss. The fact is that, after every previous shutdown, Congress has voted to reimburse out-of-pocket employees for their time off.

Still, this makes the Republicans look really bad, right? Yes, at least in terms of mainstream press coverage. But this whole fight does help energize their base, just as it also energizes the Democrats’ base. But in one key way, this whole train wreck represents something of a triumph for the GOP. All anyone is talking about is Obamacare and whether it will be funded or delayed or how long the Washington Monument will be closed. What seems to be missed in the coverage is that the House continuing resolution (real actual budgets went the way of the passenger pigeon since Obama was first elected) keeps the sequester on spending in place. That actually seems to be the endgame for any final resolution.

How else are these days like the 1990s? Well, the U.S. government is dealing with weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Unlike Barack Obama, President Clinton seemed to have no reluctance in using military force in that part of the world. Among other incursions, he launched missiles into Iraq in 1993 (in retaliation for the attempted assassination of former President George H.W. Bush) and in 1996 (after Saddam Hussein attacked Iraqi Kurdistan). Two years later he signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 establishing regime change as the official policy of the United States.

During this period U.N. weapons inspectors were in and out of Iraq, generally with inconclusive results. U.N. sanctions imposed economic hardship on the country and, to alleviate this, an Oil-for-Food Program was established to allow Iraq to buy food and medicine. This turned out to be rife with corruption, bribery and payoffs, and in the end was of little benefit to the ordinary Iraqi.

To those of us who see modern history unspooling in repeated cycles, it looks as though we are getting back to those days. In what are being portrayed as diplomatic breakthroughs, chemical weapons inspectors have moved into Syria and the Obama Administration is exploring the possibility of talks with Iran about its nuclear program.

Does President Obama understand that negotiations and inspections are sometimes a way of delaying, or maybe even avoiding, action?

I think he most certainly does. After all, I just heard him say that he would be more than happy to negotiate with House Republicans—after they have passed the continuing resolution that he wants.

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