With everything else going on — the likely imminent demise of Roe v. Wade, the revelation that Donald Trump knew he had tested positive for the coronavirus before he debated Joe Biden, and more — I don’t know how many readers are aware that the U.S. government came close to being shut down last weekend. A last-minute deal averted that crisis, but in any case another crisis will follow in a couple of weeks: The government is expected to hit its debt ceiling in the middle of this month, and failure to raise the ceiling would wreak havoc not just with governance but with America’s financial reputation.
The thing is, the federal government isn’t having any problem raising money — in fact, it can borrow at interest rates well below the inflation rate, so that the real cost of servicing additional federal debt is actually negative. Instead, this is all about politics. Both continuing government funding and raising the debt limit are subject to the filibuster, and many Republican senators won’t support doing either unless Democrats meet their demands.
And what has Republicans so exercised that they’re willing to endanger both the functioning of our government and the nation’s financial stability? Whatever they may say, they aren’t taking a stand on principle — or at least, not on any principle other than the proposition that even duly elected Democrats have no legitimate right to govern.
In some ways we’ve seen this movie before. Republicans led by Newt Gingrich partly shut down the government in 1995-96 in an attempt to extract concessions from President Bill Clinton. GOP legislators created a series of funding crises under President Barack Obama, again in a (partly successful) attempt to extract policy concessions. Creating budget crises whenever a Democrat sits in the White House has become standard Republican operating procedure.
Yet current GOP attempts at extortion are both more naked and less rational than what happened during the Obama years.
Under Obama, leading Republicans claimed that their fiscal brinkmanship was motivated by concerns about budget deficits. Some of us argued even at the time that self-proclaimed deficit hawks were phonies, that they didn’t actually care about government debt — a view validated by their silence when the Trump administration blew up the deficit — and that they actually wanted to see the economy suffer on Obama’s watch. But they maintained enough of a veneer of responsibility to fool many commentators.
This time, Republican obstructionists aren’t even pretending to care about red ink. Instead, they’re threatening to shut everything down unless the Biden administration abandons its efforts to fight the coronavirus with vaccine mandates.
What’s that about? As many observers have pointed out, claims that opposition to vaccine mandates (and similar opposition to mask mandates) is about maintaining personal freedom don’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny. No reasonable definition of freedom includes the right to endanger other people’s health and lives because you don’t feel like taking basic precautions.
Furthermore, actions by Republican-controlled state governments, for example in Florida and Texas, show a party that isn’t so much pro-freedom as it is pro-COVID. How else can you explain attempts to prevent private businesses — whose freedom to choose was supposed to be sacrosanct — from requiring that their workers be vaccinated, or offers of special unemployment benefits for the unvaccinated?
In other words, the GOP doesn’t look like a party trying to defend liberty; it looks like a party trying to block any effective response to a deadly disease. Why is it doing this?
To some extent it surely reflects a coldly cynical political calculation. Voters tend to blame whichever party holds the White House for anything bad that happens on its watch, which creates an incentive for a sufficiently ruthless party to engage in outright sabotage. Sure enough, Republicans who fought all efforts to contain the coronavirus are now attacking the Biden administration for failing to end the pandemic.
But trying to shut down the government to block vaccinations seems like overreach, even for hardened cynics. It’s notable that Mitch McConnell, whom nobody could accuse of being a do-gooder, isn’t part of the anti-vaccine caucus.
What seems to be happening instead goes beyond cold calculation. As I’ve pointed out in the past, Republican politicians now act like apparatchiks in an authoritarian regime, competing to take ever more extreme positions as a way to demonstrate their loyalty to the cause — and to The Leader. Catering to anti-vaccine hysteria, doing all they can to keep the pandemic going, has become something Republicans do to remain in good standing within the party.
The result is that one of America’s two major political parties isn’t just refusing to help the nation deal with its problems; it’s actively working to make the country ungovernable.
And I hope the rest of us haven’t lost the ability to be properly horrified at this spectacle.
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is a columnist for The New York Times.