Budget fight, Obamacare are political perfect storm

Policy duel showcases cultural tensions and debates long disrupting America

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WASHINGTON -- It's a political perfect storm: The pairing of a government shutdown with the rollout of a big chunk of the health care law is illustrating all sorts of partisan and cultural tensions that are roiling the United States. Big government vs. small. The Republican Party's identity crisis. Sharpening political divisions among Americans. And plenty more.

How big is too big?

Dueling images of the government powering itself down, just as Americans for the first time are logging on to Obamacare's new health insurance exchanges, bring into high relief a debate Americans have been having since the birth of the nation. How much government do we really need? How much is too much?

The Founding Fathers rejected the tyranny of kings and apportioned powers among Congress, the states, the executive and the courts in a balance that Americans of diverse beliefs have argued over ever since.

Ronald Reagan famously declared government the problem, not the solution -- then added to its size. Bill Clinton announced the end of the era of big government -- and pared it back. Barack Obama won election twice by holding out the promise of an activist government that could do much more for its citizens.

Now, Republicans have turned Obamacare into a political metaphor for what they hold out as Washington's heavy hand.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said people in his state are telling him that if shutting things down "is the only way to stop the runaway train called the federal government, then we're willing to try it."

Others question whether it's a fair fight. "There are no Republicans who talk about Obamacare as anything other than socialized medicine, a government takeover of the health care system," says Colby College government professor Calvin Mackenzie in Maine. "Anybody who's studied Obamacare would find that a hard conclusion to draw."

GOP soul-searching

Sure, there's a huge clash between Republicans and Democrats unfolding in Washington. But the more interesting struggle is playing out within the Republican Party, whose Tea Party faction is forcing even fellow conservatives to tack farther right and making it harder for Congress to find common ground on all sorts of big issues, not just the budget.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was reluctant to provoke a shutdown, but ultimately bowed to pressure from Tea Partiers in his caucus insistent on linking the fight over Obamacare with financing the government.

Mr. Obama put the blame for Washington's paralysis all on "one faction of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government." Though an oversimplification, it summed up the roiling divisions in the Capitol and within the GOP. It laid bare the sense among Democrats that the Tea Party is not just an opposing force, but a corrosive one.

There are plenty of Republicans who are fine with a government shutdown. But others in the GOP worry that the party is heading for a repeat of the 2012 elections, in which GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and numerous conservative candidates for Congress didn't have enough appeal with moderates to produce GOP victories.

The health care dilemma

The president accuses GOP critics of Obamacare of trying to keep people uninsured; Republicans say they're waging a principled fight against a mammoth government overreach.

At the heart of Obamacare are complicated questions of what kind of health care Americans are entitled to, how much they should have to pay and how to rein in the huge share of U.S. economic activity swallowed up by health care costs.

Americans spend nearly 20 cents of every dollar on health care. The nation's health care tab has consistently grown faster than just about everything else, outpacing wages and the gross domestic product. That means it could crowd out other priorities, such as business investment and government education spending.

Government programs cover more than 100 million Americans, or about 1 in 3. That share is going to grow as Mr. Obama's health care law takes hold. But unlike many other developed nations, the United States seems likely to keep its mix of employer coverage, government programs and individual responsibility, instead of adopting a government-run model for all.

Nanny wars

The Obamacare debate touches on a long-running one in America about the idea of a "nanny state," when the government goes too far in protecting people from themselves. Does the mandate to obtain health insurance just concern the person who is forced to get it? Or does it benefit the health care system and the economy to make sure that nearly everyone is covered?

Polling suggests that Americans value personal choice over government involvement in behavior, but it's not that simple. In an Associated Press-NORC Center poll out this year, 8 in 10 favored government policies that make it easier for people to make healthier choices, such as providing nutrition and exercise guidelines, and three-quarters supported government money for farmers markets and bike paths. But most didn't like federal mandates regarding their choices.

Red vs. Blue

Mr. Obama came to wide attention almost a decade ago on the strength of a 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech that declared that "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America." Many times since he has played on that theme of a nation not split by those party colors, in what can only be called wishful thinking.

What's happened in the budget impasse, the health care law struggle and much else in Washington is very much a result of red vs. blue, sometimes so much that each side can barely talk to the other. It's not that the middle ground has necessarily disappeared, but it is not what counts most to some ideologues now.

Republicans who have placed their opposition to the health care law at the center of everything are responding to only a slice of public opinion, Mr. Mackenzie says. "They're thinking about the people who elect them and the people who fund them, and those people are very supportive of what they're doing."

It's personal, too

This is a political and policy dispute that's also personal. Tea Party disdain for the president is unrestrained, with impeachment talk all the rage. Republicans were quick to re-label the Affordable Care Act as Obamacare to personalize their dislike of it.

Even Mr. Boehner, typically known for his even keel, did a mocking impression of Mr. Obama on the House floor as the shutdown neared, parroting him saying: "I'm not going to negotiate, I'm not going to negotiate. I'm not going to do this."

Mr. Obama has complained that House Republicans were "trying to mess with me" by passing a bill to cut off money for Obamacare. But he and other Democrats have flung their own overheated rhetoric, calling Republicans blackmailers, anarchists, extortionists and more.

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