Conservative icon Grover Norquist famously voiced the right wing’s hopes and dreams for our federal government: “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government,” Norquist quipped, “I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Well for almost three weeks archconservatives in the House of Representatives, enabled by House Speaker John Boehner, held the federal government’s head under the water. It was the American people who, ultimately, forced Republicans to pull the plug.
It’s not just that Republicans were disproportionately, and appropriately, taking the blame for the shutdown. The real-life implications of shutting down the government fundamentally undermined the conservative narrative itself and, with it, the Republican brand.
Just 24% of Americans have a positive view of the Republican Party, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. That's the lowest GOP favorability rating in 24 years. Seventy-three percent said that the shutdown was either "quite" or "extremely" serious, and 31% said that they or someone in their family had "been affected by the federal government shutdown, in terms of employment, services, or benefits." That's compared to only 18% who reported such a personal impact at the time of the 1995 and '96 shutdowns.
The conservative “big government” narrative—that the federal government is useless and ill-suited to any role beyond military defense and protection of private property—has lived on over the decades in large part because so many of the government’s other roles and functions are largely invisible to most Americans. Public structures like consumer protection, aviation and food safety, Social Security and Medicare seem to fade into the background of our lives over time as they become integrated into the fabric of our society.
But even a partial shutdown quickly makes those invisible structures visible. While public structures like Social Security, Medicare, and the daily mail were not yet interrupted, a range of other services we value were. A small sample of ten headlines from around the country illustrates how conservatives untold their own narrative while Americans’ across the country were left to reconcile their mistakes:
Transplant Delayed for Local Teen due to the Government Shutdown —KRNV News 4, Reno, NV.
In military-heavy Hampton Roads, veterans fear loss of benefits as shutdown lingers —Daily Press, Hampton, VA.
Flu season under way despite government shutdown idling Centers for Disease Control and Prevention —MassLive.com/The Republican, Springfield, MA.
Government Shutdown Could Delay Sandy Aid—Sheepshead Bites , Sheepshead Bay, NY.
Government shutdown delays Texas monthly jobs report—Dallas Morning News.
From military parks to low-income moms, shutdown affects Mississippi —Jackson Clarion Ledger.
Head Start program in Fla. closes due to shutdown —MiamiHerald.com.
Government shutdown: FAA safety inspectors among those furloughed —Los Angeles Times.
Each headline speaks to the experiences of millions of Americans around the country; to the often invisible but vitally important ways that our government serves our needs, keeps us safe, and invests in our shared prosperity. And they are just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t include, for example, the human costs suffered by 800,000 furloughed federal workers and those working without pay, or the shuttering of war memorials that, in a remarkable fit of chutzpa, conservatives tried to blame on the President. That blame-shifting struck most Americans as absurd, because conservatives have spent more than 30 years telling us that shrinking the government into impotence is precisely their goal.
While there were occasional droplets of good news amidst the ocean of bad—e.g;.KKK Rally At Gettysburg Canceled Because Of Government Shutdown, The Huffington Post— the shutdown story largely illuminated our need for valuable governmental functions. In the meantime, we were unnecessarily hobbled by an inflexible and wrongheaded conservative vision that came face to face with its flaws.
It’s too early to tell whether conservative leaders have learned anything from their showdown over the shutdown. The clear lesson for those paying attention: when politicians try to drown the federal government in the bathtub, it’s their own flawed worldview that ends up going down the drain.