Power Play

The Government that Cried Default

Sen. Ted Cruz’s message in leading the effort to end ObamaCare as part of a budget deal was built around the phrase “make Washington listen.”

But the better question today isn’t whether Washington will listen to America, but whether America is listening to Washington anymore. 

After nearly three years of intensely inept governance, Washington arrived at the latest fiscal crisis – a double cliff of partial shutdown and debt-limit breach – promising the greatest disaster yet. The rhetoric was hotter, the doomsaying more dire and the consequences deemed more disastrous than any of the disasters that came before. This was the mother of all fiscal cliffs! Be afraid!

And what did Americans, dragged kicking and screaming back to politics just 10 months after the conclusion of the most grinding, petty and nasty presidential election in modern history, end up getting for their troubles?

Absolutely nothing.

The cliff turned out to be one more speed bump on the highway to fiscal oblivion and political dysfunction. What began with the White House calling its opponents “suicide bombers” turned out to be a dud. In what has become a hallmark of his presidency, Barack Obama yet again walked to the microphones late at night to tell the country that nothing happened. Never mind. Sorry for all the racket. See you in three months.

Hardliners left and right wanted it so much. They were ready to feel the fire. Liberals desperately wanted Republicans to be punished for reckless brinksmanship as voters rose in a chorus of outrage against the “party of no.” Conservatives wanted so badly to call Obama’s bluff and drag him to the negotiating table where he would be forced to start carving up his own health insurance entitlement.

The two Highland clans stood on facing ridges, screaming and streaked with war paint. This would be the conclusive battle. A popular backlash would decide the fights that Washington could not resolve. Washington would be made to listen to the American people.

Washington did listen. But as it turned out, what Americans were saying was “Shut up.”

Voters concluded pretty quickly that both sides in the fight were placing their own agendas ahead of the national interest. While Republicans fared worse, the Obama Democrats sank too. Ordinary Americans, frightened by the rhetoric about thermonuclear consequences, concluded that their interests were not much being represented by either side.

The WSJ/NBC News Poll that sent congressional Republicans screaming toward the exits on the ObamaCare shutdown fight showed majorities believed both sides were putting their political agendas ahead of the national interest. That’s just pitiful.

(That poll, by the way, showed the GOP at its lowest point on a generic congressional ballot since October 2009… one year before the party’s most successful House elections in three generations. So don’t buy any of the hogwash about this fiscal fizzle and next year’s midterms. It’s way too early to say.)

Americans who dutifully tuned in to see what disaster Washington was brewing this time have had lots of experience of late in being terrified by their government. Starting with the deal to extend tax rates in December 2010, the calamity countdown clocks have gotten plenty of use.

And every time, it has been a countdown to nothing. The closest Washington came to consequence was when a committee created in the 2011 debt-limit rodeo failed to deliver a plan to repair the government’s deficit problem, resulting in “sequestration.”

This artificial calamity was designed to punish Americans for the incompetence of their government and thereby, theoretically, force their elected leaders into action. Hardly. Obama went on a calamity tour, warning of the harsh consequences of the caps on automatic spending increases. Doom, he cried. Republicans braced for backlash against “draconian” cuts.

The punishment ended up being pretty popular!

And while the shrinking kettle of Republican hawks has fretted about Pentagon cuts and Obama has kept the White House shut to public tours, voters have seemingly concluded that it’s not so bad. Maybe even helpful. As they watch federal deficits shrink from horrifyingly huge to just depressingly large, Americans might be forgiven for concluding that automatic governance is superior to what human beings are able to deliver these days.

And so it will be with the great shutdown of 2013. Markets never believed Obama’s warnings of disaster. Wall Street has concluded that Washington will keep kicking the can and spending money, whatever loud noises politicians make. The only thing investors seem to care about in Washington anymore is keeping alive the $1 trillion annual stimulus from the Federal Reserve. Actual government policy? Pffft. The furloughed federal workers ended up with a two-week paid vacation. Veterans made a mockery of the administration’s closure of national monuments.

Shutdown politics of the pre-Internet, pre-Fair-and-Balanced media era are gone. What happened didn’t look like a catastrophe. It looked ridiculous and unworthy.

There’s real danger here since Washington is still more than capable of ruining so much. But one wonders if having seen all this rhetoric be proven false again and again, Americans will decline to get back on the edge of their seats in January when the clocks start ticking down again.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News.  His Power Play column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays at FoxNews.com. Catch Chris live online weekdays at 11:30 am ET.  Read his “Fox News First” newsletter published each weekday morning. Sign up here.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.