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posted: 10/3/2013 5:00 AM

Putting the shutdown in context

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In life, context is everything; in Washington, leverage is everything else.

Both are essential to understanding what just happened.

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In the hours leading up to and following Tuesday's government shutdown, conventional spin (wisdom is on permanent leave) was that the Tea Party crazies popularly known as the Insanity Caucus were driving the Republican House, compliments of lead wacko-bird Sen. Ted Cruz, so named by John McCain and subsequently embraced by Cruz.

This is partly true.

Cruz did lead the 21-hour faux filibuster opposing Obamacare. And, sure, Obamacare is central to the moment but not necessarily the driving force behind the shutdown, appearances to the contrary. File this thought for a few paragraphs: The shutdown was leverage for the coming debt-ceiling fight, the purpose of which is not necessarily to delay Obamacare but to achieve other reforms -- tax and entitlement -- that are the defining purposes of the Republican Party.

Other recent spin has gone as follows: House Speaker John Boehner has been led by the Insanity Caucus rather than the reverse, directed by fear that he would be unseated as speaker.

This is partly false.

Boehner obviously made a decision to lead his caucus where it wanted to go, ultimately submitting a budget that proposed delaying Obamacare's individual mandate. But this doesn't mean he feared for his spot, which is secure, nor that he suddenly lost the courage to lead. It's more complicated.

In any case, postponing the individual mandate, though a challenge to the success of Obamacare, was both defensibly sound in light of delays given to other special groups (big business and unions) as well as, it must be noted, potentially unnecessary.

In fact, the individual mandate is delayed for one year if individuals choose not to purchase insurance for the nominal penalty/tax of $95. Given human beings' natural attraction to the path of least resistance, it makes as much sense not to buy insurance as it does to participate in the exchanges, especially given Obamacare's guarantee of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Why not wait and sign up when/if you get sick?

Subversive, perhaps, but not illegal.

Finally, conventional spin goes that Republicans would rather shut down government than fund health care, roughly translated to mean they hate women and children. Not to be outdone in the nonsense department, Republicans risibly claim that Democrats would rather shut down government than negotiate about a law that is in place, already funded, adjudicated and, as of Oct. 1, rolled out.

This sublimely abbreviated summation is essentially what The American People -- that sacred monolith about which Washington knows so little -- have been informed concerning the recent madness in the nation's capital.

But taking a closer look, one sees that all of the above lacks context and ignores the nuances of how policy and politics play out. The shutdown, which I predict will be resolved relatively quickly to permit bragging rights for all, was really a prelude to the fight over the debt ceiling, which has to be raised by Oct. 17 or the U.S. government reneges on its debts. (Simple solution to the shutdown: The Senate repeals the medical device tax in Obamacare; the House funds lost revenue in a separate bill, not the continuing resolution; the president signs a clean resolution, federal employees return to work, and everybody says "yay.")

Meanwhile, leading up to the debt-ceiling deadline, we'll witness much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth -- and that's just the media.

The American People will hear that Republicans are willing to savage the nation's full faith and credit for political points and that the president, being presidential, will refuse to be held hostage and, therefore, won't negotiate.

On the other hand, there's context and leverage.

Suppose you are John Boehner. Faced with a Democratic Senate and president, he has only two points of leverage -- appropriations and raising the debt limit -- which were set in place by greater minds than all these present.

What Republicans hope to accomplish by tying demands to the debt ceiling is a grand bargain to include a package of entitlement and tax reform. Sound familiar? The president can refuse to negotiate, but at 3 a.m. when the phone rings and it's Angela Merkel inquiring what is going on, it won't be John Boehner's phone ringing. It will be President Obama's. That's leverage. During the last debt ceiling battle, Boehner managed to secure more than $2 trillion in cuts and no taxes.

That's context.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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