Blow: A terrible, tragic game

New York TimesOctober 5, 2013 

Speaker John Boehner barked Friday about the government shutdown: “This isn’t some damn game.”

The House leader was responding to an anonymous “senior administration official” who was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article, saying: “We are winning. … It doesn’t really matter to us’ how long the shutdown lasts ‘because what matters is the end result.’”

(The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, distanced the administration from the boastful nature of that quote, referring to the president and a budget bill known as a continuing resolution in a tweet: “This is absurd. POTUS wants the shutdown to end NOW. Speaker can do that NOW by putting a clean CR to a vote. #JustVote”)

That said, the speaker is wrong once again. This, unfortunately, is a game. It’s a game that he allowed himself to be pushed into playing and one he can find no easy way out of. It’s a game in which he thought the president would blink. But President Barack Obama is staring straight ahead, wide-eyed like a long-haul trucker at 3 in the morning. This is a game in which the speaker cared more about keeping his job than about keeping the U.S. government running, the people who work for it and those who depend on it.

It is most definitely a game, a terrible, tragic game that House Republicans are playing in the People’s House.

A conversation recorded between the two senators from Kentucky, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, expresses as much.

In the conversation, Paul says to McConnell: “I just did CNN, and I just go over and over again: ‘We’re willing to compromise. We’re willing to negotiate.’ I don’t think they’ve poll-tested, ‘We won’t negotiate.’ I think it’s awful for them to say that over and over again.”

McConnell responds: “Yeah, I do too. And I just came back from a two-hour meeting with them. And that was basically the same view privately as it was publicly.”

Paul finishes: “I think if we keep saying, ‘We wanted to defund it; we fought for that, but now we’re willing to compromise on this,' I think they can’t, we’re going to, I think, well, I know we don’t want to be here, but we’re going to win this, I think.”

McConnell and Paul are doing what every politician in Washington is doing: trying to game out the shutdown, to bend it to their betterment, to outmaneuver the other side in the game of messaging.

And they think they have a winning message: The Democrats refuse to negotiate. They have twisted the president’s narrow argument, that he won’t negotiate over keeping the government open or paying the nation’s bills, into a broader one about global democratic intransigence.

They believe this will work for them because most Americans want both sides to compromise. According to a CBS News poll released Thursday, Americans want both sides to compromise on the federal budget, with 78 percent wanting congressional Republicans to compromise and 76 percent wanting the president and the Democrats to do the same.

Americans just want the dysfunction to be fixed. They want the government reopened and the series of manufactured calamities to come to an end.

The thing is, this shutdown is not about the budget. It’s about a vocal and ardent minority demanding a nullification of a law it doesn’t like. This is about the tea party’s obsession with repealing Obamacare and the president’s refusing to negotiate with hostage takers.

On this, the American people would appear to be overwhelmingly siding with the president and the Democrats. The CBS News poll found that 72 percent of Americans disapprove of shutting down the government over disagreements about Obamacare. Even among people who disapprove of the law, 59 percent disagree with shutting down the government over it. But there is a partisan split. While more than three-quarters of both Democrats and independents disapprove of the shutdown over Obamacare, Republicans are nearly evenly split on the matter.

And when it comes to blame, Americans spread it around, but they blame congressional Republicans more than the president and Democrats at a rate of 44 percent to 35 percent.

The Republicans surely must know that they’re on the losing end of the public-relations battle here, so they keep trying to distort the image of what they’ve done, projecting blame and distortion onto the president and Democrats. The Republican House members are trying to create a house of mirrors.

This is a damn game, and the American people are tired of playing it.

Email Mr. Blow at editorial@nytimes.com.

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