We may be looking at another federal government shutdown in the next week, as petulant Republicans and Democrats argue yet again over immigration, spending, taxes and whatever else they can come up with.
It’s hard to imagine a more dreary possibility. The disagreements are real, but it’s beyond belief that we may have to go through the boring theater of a shutdown again.
Politics need not be exciting. In fact, good government is often mundane: Buildings are inspected, roads are built, students are taught. Politicians perform best when they perform quietly, kind of like baseball umpires.
But the threat of another government shutdown is a different kind of boring. It shows the political parties are simply out of ideas, satisfied instead with rehashing the same tired roles they’ve played for a decade.
There was a time in American politics when this was not the case. Social Security, Medicare, the Great Society, supply-side economics, health care and immigration reform, even an interventionist foreign policy were all Big Ideas — new ways at looking at old problems.
Some ideas worked, some didn’t. But the stakes were always high and they demanded our attention.
That seems less and less the case today. Politicians tell us what they’re against — amnesty, Obamacare, tax breaks for the rich — but find it impossible to talk about new ideas they’re for.
There’s growing chatter that the 2016 presidential race might pit Hillary Clinton against Jeb Bush. Would a Bush-Clinton campaign involve a dynamic discussion of new ideas for the future, or would it be a bitter re-enactment of disputes from the past?
Let’s take a guess.
The concern isn’t limited to federal elections. Kansas City faces important problems, from violent crime to mediocre job recruitment to dangerous abandoned homes and crumbling neighborhoods. Yet the coming mayoral campaign may center around the downtown streetcar and light rail, which we’ve been arguing about for, oh, a quarter-century.
There’s a cost to this kind of political ennui. Voter turnout continues to slump because Americans, particularly the young, increasingly believe their choices don’t matter — that political disputes are a quaint distraction for Grandpa, like watching Civil War enthusiasts at Gettysburg.
It doesn’t have to be that. But it will take candidates willing to admit government shutdowns and routine scandal-mongering are aging relics, not legitimate tools for fixing anything.