Montana Viewpoint: Before government shutdowns, patriotism trumped politics

Jim Elliott

When I read the news that the United States government had shut down, my first thought was, “How can they tell?” Then I read that there was some worry that the national parks would be closed during the shut down, but since I thought we were going to close the national parks anyway, that hardly seemed like news.

It seems like the individual and collective minds of our elected officials in Congress and the president’s office had shut down, too, but that’s not really news, either.

What was news was that Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., seemed to be the only two people in the Senate who were still talking to one another, which seemed newsworthy, and that they were actually talking about a way to prevent the government shutdown, which was not only newsworthy but smacked of aberrant behavior. Admirable behavior, too, I might add.

Why none of this was much news stems from the suspicion that it had been planned for some time, years, in fact. It is difficult to believe that these shutdowns are not manufactured opportunities for political gain. Congress has not been able to pass a budget resolution (which directs how much and for what purpose money will be appropriated) since 2009.

Instead they have been relying on short-term spending bills called continuing resolutions, which continue appropriation authority to fund government. Lately it seems that the time between continuing resolutions has been getting shorter and shorter, and their timing seems to be dependent on two important political factors; how can we put the screws to the (political party of your choice goes here), and how can we make our political party take the least amount of heat.

Central to these two factors are what polarizing issues play best (or worst) with the public, and what is the best timing to fully exploit those issues for maximum political gain.

While all this may seem to be tongue-in-cheek I can assure you that it is more real than it should be. Once upon a time, as I recollect, political parties had something close to what are now loosely called “core values.” That means, they stood for something other than themselves, kind of like believing that patriotism was more important than politics.

They also had what used to be known as “leadership,” which meant that on occasion — indeed, sometimes quite regularly — the majority and minority leaders of the House or Senate would get together over coffee, beer or whiskey to discuss something other than what a jerk the other guy was. In short, leaders once liked and respected one another.

Who or what is controlling and encouraging this animosity? Most of us know it’s unnecessary because we have friends with whom we disagree politically, although I suspect that fewer and fewer of us have friends with whom we can discuss our differences calmly. This animosity is not restricted to members of opposite political parties; it occurs within political parties, too. It is basically expressed as intolerance for anyone with a differing viewpoint.

Ronald Reagan, who was good friends with the Democratic speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, said it best: “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.”

Whether or not this animosity is directed from the top down doesn’t much matter, but the only way it can be changed is from the bottom up, beginning with you and me deciding we have had enough of immaturity in politics.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.