It is a case of who blinks first, the Republicans – with their Tea Party libertarian wing – or the Democrats, led by President Barack Obama. The US federal government has shut down because Congress has refused to pass the budget. All but essential services are on hold – and bureaucrats, with the exception of the military, may not be paid – all because the Republicans want to block the health insurance system, the political baby of Obama, from being rolled out.
Polls show that the government gridlock – which has seen federal services including the issuing of passports and access to the national parks being halted – is dimly viewed by voters, with far more of them blaming the Republicans.
The next big hurdle for Obama is the debt ceiling stand-off on October 17.
With mid-term elections next year, Obama will be playing this crisis out to extract a return to Democratic rule in the House of Representatives. Then for the two years remaining of his second presidential term, his 2008 poll pledge “Yes, We Can” will more easily ring true. His party would be in control of the both houses of Congress and there would be no more need to bow to the shenanigans of his opposition.
What seems like madness to non-Americans is arguably a perfectly legitimate protest by Tea Party libertarians who believe they have a principled stance.
They believe that less government is jolly good, much less government in fact. Rolling out a health system would cripple the nation, they argue. They have been elected to the House – and Senate – on these grounds and they are mandated to fight for their cause, even if it means blocking a budget and bringing government services to a standstill, at least for a spell.
Obama bewails his fate, but this shutdown is a creature of the American democratic system, apparently since the days of his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter.
Here in South Africa, our president is not tied down by such legal chains. Although the major opposition party – the DA – is in control of one of the provinces, it does not, of course, enjoy veto rights over national government.
Even in the most unlikely event of the opposition winning one house of parliament, the National Assembly, it would be highly improbable that the president would be elected from a minority parliamentary party. It is within the bounds of possibility that he could garner a majority through coalitions, but most politically unlikely.
Yet there are similarities to be drawn between South Africa and the US impasse. The key difference is that it is its own politics of the Left that is placing the ANC in chains while in the US it is the Right. Cosatu is like the tail that wags the dog for much of the time.
It recently blocked an amendment to labour legislation that would have required unions to ballot members before striking.
Many blame the current strike wave on the government’s failure to implement this rule. Cosatu unions, particularly the National Union Metalworkers of SA, want to block the ANC’s economic blueprint, the National Development Plan, entirely.
Obama will probably win this battle but he is in a tight corner. He has little option but to ride it out in the hope that the fear of a backlash will force the Republicans to blink. If President Jacob Zuma wanted to exert his authority, such as enforcing greater accountability of union leadership and ensuring that his party’s blueprint policies were enforced, it would be much easier for him to do so than for Obama.
Yet Zuma seems to fear his own ruling party’s ghosts within. He, thus, finds himself neutralised.