The Idiocy of the Shutdown, in 3 Acts: Map, Thought Experiment, Speech

"Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events." Thus spake a previous Republican president. 
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1. Map. What you see above is how the "shiptracker" function of NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations looked earlier today, showing the recent course of some of its oceanic-and-fisheries research vessels. All the tracks shown on that map listed a termination date no later than midnight tonight, September 30, 2013. That is because the boats were ordered back to port in anticipation of the shutdown. Here is the way the map looks just now. The little red and yellow dots near Pascagoula, Mississippi, are two research vessels that have been called back.

As The Blog Aquatic says about the shutdown, 

Will it halt NOAA’s ocean research?

For the most part, the federal government’s ocean research activities will be shut down. NOAA’s research vessels will all be ordered to return to port, scientific staff will be sent home, and research efforts will be wound down. 

Just to rub it in, here is what similar boats have been doing in the past 30 days, according to NOAA data. Now all stopped.

Yeah, nobody's "hurt" by a shutdown or sequester. (Thanks DR.) This is one of ten thousand examples. Even if the showdown is brief, the wasted shut-down and start-up costs ... 

2) Thought experiment. Let's suppose it's the fall of 2005. Suppose George W. Bush has been reelected, as he was in real life. Let's suppose, also as in reality, the Senate remained in Republican hands. But then suppose that Nancy Pelosi and her Democrats had already won control of the House, rather than doing so two years later. So suppose that the lineup as of 2005 had been:

  • Reelected Republican president;
  • The president's Republican party retaining control of the Senate; and
  • Democrats controlling only one chamber, the House.

Then suppose further that Pelosi's newly empowered House Democrats announced that unless George W. Bush agreed to reverse the sweeping tax cuts that had been the signature legislative achievement of his first term, they would refuse to pass a budget so that the federal government could operate, and would threaten a default on U.S. sovereign debt. Alternatively, that unless Bush immediately withdrew from Iraq, federal government funding would cease and the debt ceiling would be frozen.

In this imagined world, I contend:

  • "respectable" opinion would be all over Pelosi and the Democrats for their "shrill," "extreme" demands, especially given their lack of broad electoral mandate;
  • hand-wringing editorials would point out that if you want to change policy, there's an established route to do so, which involves passing new bills and getting them signed into law, rather than issuing "otherwise we blow up the government" ultimatums;
  • no one would be saying that the "grownups in the room" had to resolve the crisis by giving away, say, half of the president's tax cuts. (Even though, to my taste, that would have been a positive step.)

The circumstances are the mirror image now. A party that within the past year has:

  • lost the presidency by 5 million votes;
  • lost the Senate by a total of 10 million votes;
  • held onto control of the House through favorable districting, while losing the overall House vote by 1.7 million nationwide

... is nonetheless dictating terms to the rest of the government. This would have been called extreme and unreasonable under an imagined Nancy Pelosi House in 2005. It is extreme and unreasonable now.

3) Speech. I give you the nation's first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, in his hallowed Cooper Union address of 1860. (Thanks RJK.) Worth reading every word:

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events. This, plainly stated, is your language…

In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, "Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!"

To be sure, what the robber demanded of me - my money - was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle….

Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored - contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong...

Ninety minutes to go, here on the East Coast. "Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government..."  Grrrr. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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