In his latest weekly address, President Obama used an interesting phrase, which he seemed to find significant enough to use twice. For those who can't watch clips online:
"I know you're frustrated by what you see in your nation's capital right now. But because it's easy to get lost in or give up on the political back-and-forth, I want you to remember: this is not normal. Our government is closed for the first time in 17 years. A political party is risking default for the first time since the 1700s. This is not normal. That's why we have to put a stop to it. Not only because it's dangerous, but because it saps everyone's faith in our extraordinary system of self-government. And that hurts us all."
"This is not normal" is one of those phrases that stands out in part because it's true, and in part because much of the political world pretends it isn't true.
For example, over the summer, Peggy Noonan, a prominent Republican pundit, scoffed at the "hype" from the media about "a unique and epic level of partisan animus." On the debt ceiling, Republicans have pushed the spectacularly untrue line that "both sides" have held this particular hostage. Even after congressional Republicans shut down the government two weeks ago, it was widely characterized as something that just happens from time to time.
But in reality, this is not normal. It's not business as usual. Recent developments have no precedent in the American tradition. What we're witnessing is, quite literally, domestic political radicalism unseen in modern times.
What about the previous government shutdowns? Before 1980, there were some brief disputes and budget battles, but government workers stayed on the job and operations were largely unaffected. What's more, nearly all of the pre-Gingrich shutdowns were exceedingly brief and dealt with specific appropriations bills.
The Gingrich shutdowns in the mid-1990s were arguably the first real shutdowns of the federal government, but they at least dealt with a dispute over the budget itself. This year's Tea Party shutdown is the second actual shutdown -- the first ever during a war -- and as best as anyone can tell, Republicans aren't altogether sure exactly why they even felt the need to do this.
As for the debt ceiling, 2011 was the first hostage crisis of its kind, though at the time, Republican leaders in Congress at least knew what they wanted. Now they're threatening to hurt Americans on purpose unless Democrats meet demands that have not yet been specified. Worse, the Republican Party is filled with unhinged fools who've convinced themselves that U.S. default would be meaningless.
This. Is. Not. Normal.
Kevin Drum had a righteous rant the other day that had me nodding as I read it.
Except for Newt Gingrich in 1995, no one has ever shut down the government as a threat to get something they want. And except for John Boehner in 2011, nobody has ever threatened to breach the debt ceiling as a threat to get something they want. That's because it's basically nuclear chicken, threatening to destroy the economy unless you get your way. It's unthinkable. [...]
How do you get across how insurrectionary this is? Raising the debt ceiling isn't a concession from Republicans that deserves a corresponding concession from Democrats. It's the financial equivalent of a nuclear bomb: both sides will go up in smoke if it's triggered. Ditto for the government shutdown. [...]
You can't govern a country this way. You can't allow a minority party to make relentless demands not through the political system, but by threatening Armageddon if they don't get what they want. It's not what the Constitution intended; it's not something any president could countenance; and it's reckless almost beyond imagining.
And most important of all, it's not something that should get written about as if it's just a modest escalation of normal political disagreements. It's not normal.
There's that phrase again.