, Salem, MA


October 19, 2013

Shribman: When to hold 'em, when to fold 'em

The drama of the last two weeks has been about the future of nationally mandated health insurance, resuming government spending, extending the debt ceiling and avoiding national default. These are all important matters — any one of them could be enough to stop a country dead in its tracks — and the ordeal of October 2013 surely will be studied by scholars for years to come.

But in a way, this month’s crisis has been about even greater issues, not the sort that are debated on the floor of the House or Senate or even in political science classes, but instead are the preoccupation of the philosophy department and the pulpit. We have been so consumed with avoiding default, or charting the barometric pressure inside the House Republican conference, or watching John Boehner balance what he wanted to do with what he needed to do, that we have overlooked the more enduring questions this episode has posed.

We knew from the start of this struggle that eventually the government would open and that eventually Washington would pay its bills. But we also know that this crisis has raised but not answered these questions, unavoidable in our private lives even if they are avoidable in lawmakers’ public lives:

— When does principled resistance become stubbornness and intransigence?

House Republicans angered Democrats and some Republicans for their determination not to allow the regular functions of government to proceed until Obamacare was, variously, repealed, trimmed back or adjusted. Many of these lawmakers were elected from devoutly conservative districts where resistance to Obamacare is genuine and strong and where their election to Congress was fueled by their vows to fight Obamacare on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets and in the hills.

Many of you will recognize that the latter was paraphrased from Winston Churchill’s June 1940 “we shall never surrender” speech, which is saluted (as Churchill would say) by English-speaking people as the ultimate expression of political and moral determination. We celebrate it because we admire the cause in which he enlisted those brave words: the defeat of a brutal tyranny bent on world domination and the extermination of its enemies, both military and civilian.

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