Congressional Republicans play ‘Reagan Says,’ lose

Twenty seven years ago, President Ronald Reagan made his famous proclamation,“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” The line was historic not just for the way it summed up the governing philosophy of the Reagan White House but also for the impact that rhetoric like it had on a whole new generation of Republicans. And this month, those Republicans finally heeded the rhetoric of Reagan and, for the first time since 1996, shut down that monster of a system that pays their salaries and pension benefits, completely ignoring the true actions of their role model.

If you ask a Congressional Republican who their hero is, you will no doubt get a variety of answers. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Jesus (which one of these is different from the rest?), but ask long enough, and you will inevitably encounter one name that in all likelihood shouldn’t take that long to appear: President Ronald Reagan, or perhaps, for the more folksy members of the Republican Caucus, the Gipper. And why not? Reagan’s philosophy of a limited government, strong national defense, and the importance of maintaining the “traditional values” of our culture form the bedrock of the modern conservative movement.

Even now as the government has been shut down following Republican attempts to link a bill funding the government to measures to repeal, alter, or delay the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), Reagan is still being invoked. Some, like former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, note that the government was shut down under Democratic leadership as well, especially under President Reagan.

While it’s true the government has been shut down before, it is not completely accurate to equate shutdowns like this or the last one in 1996 (which Speaker Gingrich helped to cause) with shutdowns from the ‘70s and ‘80s, all of which ended in a matter of days and were usually over relatively small issues that could easily be worked out. Compare these shutdowns with the three weeks the government remained closed in 1996, along with the bitter partisan divide that created such a shutdown in the first place.

The government isn’t shut down because the House couldn’t agree on whether or not to fund a dam construction project in North Dakota as might have been the case under The Gipper. It’s shut down because an increasingly radical section of the Republican Party believes that the American people are on their side (despite losing seats in both houses of the Congress and the presidency in last year’s election) and that the need to repeal the president’s signature achievement somehow outweighs their Constitutional obligation to “promote the general welfare” of the government in which they serve by simply funding it.

House Republicans may cite Reagan or previous conservative leaders to justify their actions, but their reasoning gets lost in what these leaders actually did. Reagan may have been able to wax poetic about the evils of “Big Government,” but he was also able to work with the Democratic speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. He might have loathed the bureaucracy, but that didn’t mean forcing it to shutdown to attempt to reel it in. Regardless of speeches Reagan gave, his actual record of tax increases, compromise, and the all-important business of at least funding the government create a stark contrast with the Republicans of today.

Disliking big government as a philosophy is fine. A balanced democracy needs its conservatives and its liberals. What it doesn’t need are extremists. But the end result of years of scooting farther and farther to the right has created a radical faction in the Republican Party that views shutting down the government, or even, as now seems increasingly possible, defaulting on its debt, as appropriate means to achieve the end of repealing a healthcare plan they and their last presidential nominee once championed.

This is not conservatism. It is radicalism and desperation. You’re not always going to win in politics. Sometimes laws will be passed over your objections, and even after taking the legal routes to attempt to limit or overturn them, such laws may remain in place. But losing doesn’t mean it is all right to throw a fit that affects the lives of millions of Americans, from public employees to contractors to veterans. It’s not what our constitutional democracy is about, and it certainly isn’t a tactic out of Reagan’s playbook. It’s an embarrassing symptom of hyperpartisan dysfunction. And if Republicans truly want America to be as great as they claim, it needs to stop.