The federal government shutdown, that unseemly and altogether ugly debacle just concluded, has been the subject of much ridicule and reproach, and rightly so.
By some estimates, our economy took a $24 billion hit as furloughed workers stayed at home and went unpaid, national parks and attractions were closed, research funding dried up, contracts and grants went unfunded, private businesses deferred new projects, and so on.
And for what?
The stated goal of those keen on forcing a shutdown, so far as we can tell, was to compel a defunding of the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as “Obamacare.” It didn’t matter, of course, that the House of Representatives had unsuccessfully sought to repeal the law on 42 prior occasions.
Nor did it matter that the Senate is controlled by a Democratic majority, nor that the president, after whom the law is (obviously) nicknamed, would never have allowed a repeal on his watch.
All that mattered to the petulant mob of shutdown proponents was, well, something, presumably. We may never know precisely, since they’ve scattered to the winds or repaired to their Congressional districts where, alone in the nation, they may find support and solace for having fought for something or other.
In the end, the shutdown was just a costly and embarrassing exercise in demagoguery, foul to behold and difficult to endure. As for its resolution, Solomonesque it may have been, but Churchillian it was not.
The expression “kick the can down the road” is being used with some frequency. That gives us some idea of what we can look forward to, and it speaks volumes that Democrats are actually thankful that Sen. Mitch McConnell is the leader of Senate Republicans.
In fact, both McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had much to do with the resolution, highly imperfect though it is, of the legislative game of chicken just concluded, and I think I know why.
Experience matters, and not just legislative experience. Life experience.
In fact, age matters.
It’s fashionable to bemoan the aging of our state and our society, and from an economic development standpoint, it’s probably correct to do so. But there are still some aspects of life and leadership where experience and age (there’s that word again) make the difference.
Look at the ages of the principle proponents of the shutdown caucus:
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, 42. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., 42. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, 42. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., 43.
All are young, by Congressional standards, and all are relatively new to service at the highest levels of government.
Now compare their ages with those who were able to work across the aisle and salvage some level of government functionality:
Reid, D-Nev., 73; McConnell, R-Ky., 71; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 77; Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., 77; Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, 69; Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, 60.
Age and experience – life experience – matter when it comes to effective government. Think back to President Bill Clinton’s first term. He was just 46 years old when elected.
His first administration was notable for the defeat of the Health Security Act, or “Hillarycare,” an ambitious effort to create national health care coverage. From a political perspective, it was too much too soon, and Clinton’s choice of his wife to lead the effort reflected his lack of experience and comprehension of Washington politics (her exceptional skills and intelligence notwithstanding).
The public screamed its disapproval in midterm elections, compelling Clinton to declare, remarkably, that as president, he was still relevant.
Obama’s early difficulties with Congress also reflected inexperience with Washington policy dynamics and power. He had barely served in the Senate before running for president. His lack of significant experience there made it difficult for him to command the respect of Congress once elected.
It is true that there is nothing he could have done to overcome the obstructionism of many of his opponents, whose mission in public life is to see that the president accomplishes nothing. But there is also little doubt that experience and time in the trenches lead to better understanding and a better perspective on what is possible to achieve and how to achieve it.
In time, these shutdown shenanigans will fade into memory and become fodder for political science classes, but I expect people will be talking about this mess for years to come.
Hollywood may even be tempted to make a feature film out of the fiasco.
If any screenwriters contact me, however, I know what I’d tell them. I’d take a remake of “The Over-the-Hill-Gang Rides Again,” rather than “Young Guns,” any day of the week.
Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe. He is also chairman of the Maine District Export Council. His website is perrybnewman.com.