Skip to main content

A cage match that's bad for the country

By Matt Welch, Special to CNN
  • Matt Welch says shutdown threat is distraction from long-term reform
  • Welch: Overreaching fights, and backlash, have come before in California and Wisconsin
  • Welch: There's a hunger for grown-up talk on budget that's not helped by TV political battles

Editor's note: Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author (with Nick Gillespie) of the forthcoming "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America."

(CNN) -- Please don't get me wrong: As an American, I would swell with patriotic glee if the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development were unable for a few hours or even weeks to do their dirty business. As a resident of the federally funded District of Columbia, I would be relieved if my cartoonishly corrupt local government missed out on a few direct deposits. And as a libertarian, I relish the prospect of a demonstration of how inessential most government services are.

But as someone who has been making the case since George W. Bush's first term that the federal government is growing at a rate that is literally, even admittedly, unsustainable, I fear that taking the keys from the Winnebago of state will redirect the national conversation away from the urgent business of long-term reform and toward the short-term theatrics of a political cage match.

We have seen this play out before, and not just in the 1995-96 government shutdown, which was widely seen as the political death-knell for the at least semi-libertarian Gingrich "revolution" of 1994.

The Milton Friedman-quoting action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger was swept into Sacramento in 2003 on a wave of revulsion at California Gov. Gray Davis' stunning fiscal irresponsibility. The "governator" promised to "blow up the boxes" of the state budget, without regard for either political party's sacred cows or patronage machines. Instead, he got lured into a knife fight with Big Labor.

In 2005, instead of pushing forward on the admittedly complicated business of reducing runaway government, Schwarzenegger focused on his opponents: public-sector unions. Two of his four ballot initiatives that fall went after Big Labor, including a familiar-sounding provision that would have forced public-sector unions to obtain written approval from each individual member once a year before spending dues on political campaigns.

It turned out to be Schwarzenegger's Waterloo. Labor -- far and away the biggest force in California politics -- rallied, hounding the governor at every public appearance for more than a year. Schwarzenegger's entire reform slate went down the tubes, and with it his appetite for trying to fulfill his 2003 promise of getting California to live within its means.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin might be walking down a similar path, though he seems to be made of sterner (and more confrontational) stuff than the Hollywood actor married into the Kennedy clan. Faced with a real budget shortfall (Rachel Maddow and Michael Moore protestations notwithstanding), Walker took the crucial step of reducing public-sector pension promises, but then went two steps further by denuding the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector workers via a razor-thin legislative majority.

Walker's arguably unnecessary overreach aroused an enormous backlash on the left, and now Wisconsin politics will likely be marked more by recall elections of Republicans than tangible reductions in government.

As Aaron Burr could tell you, nothing improves your odds of salvaging victory from a losing argument quite like challenging your opponent to a duel. And make no mistake about it: In 2011, the Democrats, and specifically President Barack Obama, are losing this argument.

The country is out of money at every level, with entitlements and debt service alone poised to swallow the federal budget whole within a decade or two. Yet the president and his party utterly failed to deliver a budget for fiscal year 2011, a shocking abdication of responsibility made all the worse by the fact that they controlled Congress at the time.

Obama's 10-year budget proposal this year -- with its best-case projections of debt climbing to 77 percent of gross domestic product by 2020 -- was final proof that the candidate who ran on enacting a "net spending cut," whose first budget was arrogantly (and inaccurately) titled "An Era of New Responsibility: Renewing America's Promises," is the most fiscally irresponsible president in at least a generation. Considering how bad his predecessor was, that's no small feat.

There is a tangible hunger across the land for adult talk about our dangerous and unsustainable fiscal situation. Into the vacuum created by Democrats this week stepped Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, whose opening gambit, despite avoiding any serious cuts in defense and Social Security, had the virtue of at least kick-starting a long-overdue conversation.

Much of that will go out the window if and when the federal government shuts down. Instead of winning arguments, budget hawks will be trying to win press conferences. Instead of tackling reform, they'll be trying to tackle the buffoon on the other side of the cage.

All-or-nothing television duels create dynamics too hot to predict. True believers man their battle stations, cooler-headed partisans are reluctantly sucked into the fray, and the only growing political bloc in the country -- independents -- shrink away in horror. If that latter group comes out of a government shutdown ready to double down on the unacceptable budgetary status quo, there might not be time left to forestall the next economic catastrophe.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.