Shutdown, showdown or shakedown?

Shutdown, showdown or shakedown?
© Getty Images

In Lewis Carrol’s satirical fantasy Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a wandering Alice meets a variety of anthropomorphic creatures including the Cheshire Cat, and asks him, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” The Cat blithely replies, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” That is an apt analogy for the choices America now faces, and the current partial government shutdown is a clear sign of our confusion, lack of leadership and frustration — we are lost, and we are desperately seeking a new direction.

Like in Alice’s dilemma, our Republic has come to a crossroads, and the view down each path isn’t pretty. This current impasse is not simply a matter of political differences over the building of a wall and immigration policy . . . It clearly reflects the dysfunction in today’s politics, a lack of statesmanship on both sides of the aisle and historic polarization that is paralyzing this country.

ADVERTISEMENT

The spectacle of a president delivering a somber message to the nation from the Oval Office isn’t a new phenomenon. Many presidents have communicated issues of great importance to the nation, including Dwight Eisenhower’s message when he sent troops into Little Rock to desegregate the schools, John F. Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ronald Reagan after the Challenger tragedy and George W. Bush following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But this was different, and this shutdown and the president’s recent televised address were different, as well.

It was a partisan sales pitch from the world’s greatest bully pulpit, delivered by a democratically elected world leader who is both supported and opposed by legislators who have successfully split America into angry camps.

There is no question immigration is an important topic. Though we are a nation of immigrants, we struggle with ambiguous policies and laws that are outdated, inconsistent and, though well intentioned, enforced in ways that often fail to reflect the humanitarian values we claim to hold dear. And we face a drug crisis that is spiraling out of control and lacking in clear or simple antidotes.

But while immigration and drug policy enforcement are not manufactured issues, the shutdown is. Simply a smokescreen, it is the result of the unwillingness to compromise, to forge solutions in the best interest of all Americans and a clear indication to the world that the United States — once the universal beacon of democracy, innovation and freedom — is no longer working.

How appropriate a metaphor when you consider the hundreds of thousands of Federal workers now sidelined, unable to pay their bills and struggling to make ends meet for themselves and their families. Add to that the thousands of businesses, small and large, that depend on these workers and government dollars to stay afloat. Weigh in the cost of caring for and tending to the thousands of undocumented aliens, many of them children, now in federal detention. Think about our national parks, museums and monuments, all treasures, now closed or on life support as garbage piles up and critical services are suspended. These are simply the tip of the iceberg, truly the national emergency the president has alluded to, exacerbated by stubborn, childish behavior, political self-preservation and myopic obsessiveness.

At this time in our social and political evolution, who would have thought that the “I’m taking my toys and going home” school of diplomacy would have ripened so fully?

To be fair, every president has had his agenda, his core topics and the promises he made to his constituents. And Trump, like his predecessors, has every right to pursue policies he believes are right and in keeping with the platform upon which he was elected. Any president’s greatest ally is the public, but what we are seeing now is an element of desperation and pandering unlike any I’ve ever witnessed. And the costs, beyond the human dimensions, are truly frightening.

Government should not be allowed to shut down or cease to provide critical services. Never. The message to the world is that we are broken.

ADVERTISEMENT

Our credibility is shattered, and we need to contemplate the global consequences of this childish, entrenched behavior. Consider how this closure might embolden non-democratic countries, autocrats and despots around the world who may see it as an opportunity to say to their citizens, “See, democracy isn’t so hot — look at how badly it’s working in America.” And what about on the economic, environmental, military and humanitarian fronts? Our perceived weaknesses simply open the door for more nefarious behavior, abroad and at home.

I have a portrait of James Madison on the wall of my office. Madison, one of the architects of our Constitution, would be appalled by this shutdown and the political polarization that challenges America today. Madison and his fellow framers saw a government of checks and balances, a nation of free people who could differ, debate and resolve their troubles amicably through compromise and negotiation. They never would have foreseen a “win at all costs” mentality and this kind of political stalemate.

The “my way or nothing” approach to diplomacy and problem solving is a zero-sum game . . . nobody wins, no matter the outcome.

I’m an idealist, an optimist; I truly believe we can come to reasonable compromises that involve improved border security and the many other legitimate and important issues that face our nation. But for that to happen, our elected officials have to stop behaving like preschoolers and start acting like leaders.

Gary Rose is an author, professor and chair of the Department of Government at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.