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Democrats cave. Activists erupt. Here’s why they’re wrong.

Democrats cave. Activists erupt. Here’s why they’re wrong.

“The government shutdown is not a good way to get an outcome legislatively,” Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator, told his Democratic colleagues earlier this week. Which is true, I guess, in the same way that jumping from the roof of a burning building is not a good way to escape the flames. It helps if you can give people some better options.

Even so, after making their point and then folding, Democratic leaders in the Senate seem to have resolved not to venture out on that particular ledge again, opening a deep rift in what had been a unified opposition. The party’s liberal base, including leaders in the House, opposed caving so easily on a promise from Mitch McConnell to vote on immigration reform, and they’re furious at Senate Democrats for accepting a compromise.

Apparently this is supposed to be the new normal in Washington, with one faction or another bringing the entire government to an existential crisis every couple of years, because being a minority in Congress now means having to paralyze the system in order to be heard, and because whenever one party manages to excavate one level deeper into the unexplored depths of our political destruction, the other feels duty bound to reciprocate.

The truth is that Senate Democrats, far from cowering to Republicans, showed unusual courage in defying the angriest voices in their own party. Unfair as this may seem to frustrated liberals, political tactics work out differently for different parties, depending on their core arguments. And just because your adversary got away with political terrorism doesn’t mean you can, too.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to what Democrats were trying to do here. Even sensible Republicans in Congress agree that the White House’s extremist line on immigration — specifically when it comes to undocumented residents who were brought here as children — lacks both policy sense and compassion.

As principles go, this seems like a pretty good one on which to stake your party’s future — if only the means of doing that didn’t undermine your entire reason for being.

Here’s what I mean: at bottom, modern Republicans don’t believe there’s value in most of what the federal government does. It’s an argument they’ve been honing now, to considerable effect, for more than 40 years. Their ambivalence toward soaring public debt — at least when they’re the ones racking it up — derives from an extreme theory that eventually government will no longer be able to sustain itself, and then much of what it does will just have to go away.

So when rogue Republicans shut down the government in 2013, it was entirely consistent with their overarching argument. We think the government spends too much to achieve too little, and we’re happy to derail it if that’s what it takes. You have to admire the simplicity of that, if not the heedless nihilism.</p>

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