How to solve the crisis in Washington
October 3rd, 2013
09:48 PM ET

How to solve the crisis in Washington

By Fareed Zakaria

It is the defining moment of a democracy – an outgoing leader celebrates the election of a new one, from the opposing party. Think of George H.W. Bush welcoming Bill Clinton, or Jimmy Carter doing the same for Ronald Reagan. Across the world, this is the acid test of a real democracy. Mexicans will tell you that they knew that they had gotten there when President Ernesto Zedillo, after 70 years of one-party rule, allowed free elections and stood with his newly elected successor and affirmed his legitimacy.

The basic and powerful idea behind this ritual is that in a democracy, the process is more important than the outcome. If a genuine democratic process has been followed, we have to accept the results, regardless of how much we dislike the outcome. The ultimate example of this in recent American history might be Al Gore’s elegant acceptance of the process – complicated, politicized, but utterly constitutional – that put George W. Bush in the White House.

It must also have been difficult for Richard Nixon to grin and accept the results of the 1960 election – a poll marred by voter fraud that John F. Kennedy won by a narrow margin – but he did. And as vice president, he reported the results to the Senate, saying:

“This is the first time in 100 years that a candidate for the presidency announced the result of an election in which he was defeated and announced the victory of his opponent. I do not think we could have a more striking example of the stability of our constitutional system and of the proud tradition of the American people of developing, respecting and honoring institutions of self-government. In our campaigns, no matter how hard fought they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win.”

That is what is at stake in Washington this week. The debate going on there is not trivial, not transitory – and not about Obamacare. Whatever you think about the Affordable Care Act, it is a law that was passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, then signed by the president, and then validated by the Supreme Court as constitutional. This does not mean it cannot be repealed. Of course it can be repealed, as can most laws. But to do so, it would need another piece of legislation – one that says quite simply “The Affordable Care Act is hereby repealed in its entirety” – that passes the House and Senate and is then signed into law by the president.

More from CNN: Extremism worst in history?

But what cannot be allowed to stand is the notion that if a group of legislators cannot convince a majority in both houses and the president to agree with them, they will shut down the government or threaten to default until they can get their way. That is extortion, not democracy.

I would be happy to see President Barack Obama compromise on the budget, taxes, spending – even health care. But he cannot compromise on the principle that the rules of democracy must be respected, whatever the outcome. If Democrats had threatened to shut down the government to force the repeal of the Bush tax cuts or defund the Iraq War, I would have hoped Bush would have also been uncompromising.

So, how to solve the crisis? Many have wondered when the grown-ups in the Republican Party will force the House minority to call off this campaign. But that misunderstands the changed nature of American government. There are no more “grown-ups” in Washington, in the sense of a powerful political establishment that can get younger members of Congress in line. There are, instead, 535 political entrepreneurs, each seeking reelection and worried only about his or her fate.

Consider what happened with immigration reform, when almost the entire Republican establishment wanted to make a deal with the Democrats and yet a minority of House members once again were able to derail things. John Boehner is not leading his party, he is being led by its most passionate and radical wing. This crisis can only end when members of that wing understand that what they are doing is anti-democratic and harmful to the country.

More from CNN: Tough choices for Boehner

Meanwhile, there is a way to turn this crisis into an opportunity. The debt ceiling is an absurd anachronism that should not anyway exist. Only a handful of countries around the world have anything like it. And the president cannot actually make sense of it.

Brookings Institution scholar Henry Aaron points out that were Congress to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, the president would have to choose between two congressional mandates on him. First, Congress passes spending and taxation levels for the year, which the president must faithfully execute. But then it does not raise the debt ceiling. So either the president must ignore the congressional action requiring him to spend and tax at the levels they have set, or he has to ignore the fact that they did not raise the debt ceiling. Were this to happen, the president should declare that he is going to obey the more substantive law – actually asking him to spend money and levy taxes – and ignore the procedural one. He would then borrow the money he needed to, to enforce Congress’ will.

Were Obama to do this, it would solve the current crisis, and also end the prospect that the crux of America’s financial power – its sovereign debt and the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency – could ever again be held hostage through thoroughly undemocratic parliamentary games.

Finance aside, America’s global influence derives in large measure from the strength of its democracy. If American politicians start playing fast and loose with the rules, doing whatever it takes to get the results that they want, what does that say to people in Russia, Egypt, Iran, and Venezuela who get pious lectures on the rules of democracy? It tells them that something is deeply wrong with the American system these days.

soundoff (517 Responses)
  1. Rogerd

    If Mr. Zakaria can come back fro two instances of journalistic plagiarism, this country can rebound from a short inconsequential government shut down.

    If you don't have personal integrity, what do you have?

    October 7, 2013 at 5:35 am | Reply
    • Juan

      Why do attack the man and not the argument. When you don't have a real argument you should shut up instead of arguing the integrity.

      October 7, 2013 at 8:46 am | Reply
  2. lord Kubota

    The liberals can't get over this. Too bad. The Tea Party has plenty of energy to stop them cold and their witch doctor.

    October 7, 2013 at 8:17 am | Reply
    • Juan

      If the tea party has energy, they should prove it with votes. If they have the votes then they can change the whole country if they want but a group of extremist can do great bad and good thing no question about it.

      October 7, 2013 at 8:48 am | Reply
    • pat

      LORD ???



      October 7, 2013 at 9:46 am | Reply
      • pat

        These media outlets are coming out clean on the other side just like someone instigating a fight.

        When they speak to the republicans on TV they never push them but so far and they never press them to give a STRAIGHT answer to a question.

        The lying snakes on am radio namely 770 are a disgrace , I can't believe that people are gullible enough to believe the crap that they shovel.

        Next time you put a stick on your shoulder and dare someone to knock it off , you better be damn sure that you have someone that won't call your bluff.

        October 7, 2013 at 10:07 am |
  3. cbp

    The AMerican system has lasted over 200 years. During the last 5 years a small group of people in Congress have joined the TEA Party movement. They have come to Washington with their own agendas and will not agree to anything else. If we are truly interested in getting the government back in business then we need to let our representatives know that we will not tolerate shutting the government down. It is time for the people to speak and we must do so to protect this nation for our children and grandchildren.

    Congress spent money so freely to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the skirmishes in other countries. In fact we did not appropriate money for the war but just kept on spending. Clinton left a surplus which was quickly used up. Where was Congress then. We are in this predicament because our representatives were not watching the expenditures. Now they wish to end social programs Government is there by the people and for the people. These programs did not cause the spending gap. Speaker Boehner is unable to get the TEA Party to his table let alone get himself to the table with the President.

    October 7, 2013 at 8:25 am | Reply
    • pat

      The Republicans squandered the surplus but you won't hear that from them.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:51 am | Reply
      • The Decline

        You cant carry a surplus over. The surplus isnt some great reserve we funnel money into when we have it. It changes year to year. But of course, you already knew that.

        October 7, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
      • pat

        The Decline you've been Declined !!!!

        Noone really cares what you think or what you have to say you guys are screw ups and liars , your primary goal is to defeat Obama at any cost and its been that way from the start.

        Do you remember them saying that they wanted to prevent Obama from gaining a second term.

        They didn't say we want to work with him to help find a solution.

        But of course you don't remember that !!!!!

        Obama has done exactly what he said he was going to do and he has beaten them at their own game and they can't stand it , stay tuned for the finally we don't want you to miss it.

        October 7, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
      • pat

        DEVIL !!!!!

        October 7, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
  4. John Culley

    That is why most countries are fiscally fouled up!

    October 7, 2013 at 8:27 am | Reply
  5. Profile Of A Typical Republican That Posts Here

    1. Thinks republicans are conservatives.
    2. Makes less than $100,000/yr.
    3. Net worth less than $200,000.
    4. Primary residence is on wheels or blocks.
    5. Probably retired and depending on SS and Medicare (or will be the person most likely to need SS & Medicare).
    6. Thinks they are religious but they should read the book, "How NOT To Be A Republican" (a.k.a. The Bible).
    7. Actually thinks republicans represent THEM!!

    October 7, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
    • The Decline

      This post is a joke. Grow up.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  6. Hof

    "If a genuine democratic process has been followed, we have to accept the results, regardless of how much we dislike the outcome. "

    Really? So, what results did BHO accept by unilaterally excepting businesses from ACA mandates when the law gives him no such authority?

    October 7, 2013 at 10:03 am | Reply
    • pat

      Lets vote on it.

      October 7, 2013 at 10:11 am | Reply
  7. franklovesfl

    Greece and Spain didnt have a debt ceiling (until now). How'd THAT work out?

    October 7, 2013 at 10:43 am | Reply
  8. harry

    let me get this straight. a few people in congress have decided to damage our country, our president and the republican party itself in order to save our country from a worse fate. that is, a health care system that is badly needed. now those few people give reasons that seem to come right from popular internet gossip. they do have at least some of the public on their side that likely believe the same misinformation mill.

    now they have decided their quest is so important to save our country that they are justified in holding the rest of us hostage to their will. some of them are actually proud and happy about what they have done so far and are planning to make it worse. this is all based on Obamacare being so bad that it is worse then shutting down our country. a lot of people believe that but why.

    when i carefully examined Obamacare i didn't find any such sinister intent. in fact it looks like a very good attempt to civilize our medical system. the fact that it allows for change and input kinda throws out all the gossip that seems to be driving the tea party.

    i want the tea party to tell me why its bad. no one has done that yet without resorting to gossip or opinion. i haven't seen anything that could, even with great imagination, do more harm to our country than what has already happened at the hands of this small group.

    the tea party better have a much more serious claim against Obamacare than i have heard so far. i will listen to but not give credibility to gossip, misinformation and opinions. tell me, without resorting to those, why you cant help make it work.

    you better have a very good explanation since the risk of what you are doing is so high. it will do little good to repeat what you have already said. i have checked that out and its garbage. there is no need for you to research your answers since those should have been in place before you decided to damage our country to save it from a fate worse than ... what ?

    i know that some people can be convinced and influenced by popular gossip. examples are those that believe inoculations are killing people when the opposite is obvious. they believe all the really bad stuff out there about their own president even though its all been proven to be a hoax more than once . yet some even high stature people re-dredge it and they always draw a crowd that wants to believe such things. a politician can get a following by giving credibility to such popular hoax material.

    now we have a person of stature, Mr. Zakaria. he puts it in a perspective that is easy to understand. a beautifully done article that is free from bias and hate. his article is as informative and logical as it can be. yet this good person will be attacked anyhow.

    if you have taken a stand based on gossip then you might feel threatened and a need to attack those that try to fix the misunderstandings. not all disagreements are damaging but unfounded statements of fact and mean spirited comments are most often not helpful.

    i for one, am impressed by Fareed Zakaria. agreeing with him is optional but listening to what he has to say just makes sense.

    October 7, 2013 at 10:44 am | Reply
    • pat

      Harry well put.

      We owe you lunch !!!

      Still lying as we speak saying that we don't have enough for a vote , then call a vote and prove the Dems wrong.

      Talk is cheap it takes money to buy land !!!


      October 7, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Reply
      • pat

        This is all about beating OBAMA , PERIOD !!!!!

        Now you can really see how racist some people are in this country.

        " I rather die and go to HELL than lose to a n****r !!!! "

        October 7, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  9. pat

    Go OBAMA !!!!

    stand firm !!! Bend so you don't break !!!

    October 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Reply
    • frederic champagne

      I agree republicans are to blame for the shutdown.I hear you Mr.Zakaria.
      But for the debt ceiling we disagree.Look up the deficit and say debt ceiling don't have a chance to exist
      and not be more responsible about our spending.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  10. pat

    CNN comments why don't you get Boehner to answer a direct question and call a vote if he feels that he is right.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  11. miceli248

    I sent this to 88 tea party members speaker boehner this morning via email:Sir,

    Your poor performance as member of the House of Representatives. I consider you un-American and a political terrorist. Get your big boy pants on and do what you are paid for.

    It seems to me that there have been too many occurrences of bickering and infighting among yourselves which has prevented and neglected the country for far too long. The reality that each party member of their respective organization has agenda’s which are personally rewarding either financially or receiving perks or special rewards which are extremely noticeable for even the ordinary person to see. Far too many cases of corruption reported; i.e.… hiding money in refrigerator freezers, Campaign finance fraud and abuse. Miss-management of tax payer contributions. The list goes on and on. Now you shut the government down! “Tea Party”!

    You’re inability to put together the heads of the brightest and best men and women to come up with a decision which has been discussed, voted on, and deemed to be mutually the best decision not merely for party affiliation but for good reason, and just cause to include for the good of the order. Clearly an example of poor leadership on your regard.

    Do what you are paid for or give up your paid dues, or your duties and let someone else govern. I will never be affiliated with your group again. You must really bow to this TED Cruz Ideology.

    Joseph P. Miceli
    Hereford, Arizona

    October 7, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Reply
    • pat

      Thank you Miceli.

      Grandma always said " when you dig a grave for someone else dig one for yourself ".

      The Republicans have dug a grave for Obama but they are gonna end up in it.

      Grandma I guess they don't have to dig a second one in this case.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  12. Paul

    I'm so glad I dint live in USA. Self obsessed, fragmented, blinkered society, gun totting. Hellhole

    October 8, 2013 at 7:44 am | Reply
  13. Gabriel.J Dunatra

    There is always imperfection, and trouble is always there in human tricky mind which demands for everything, the best, the worst and the craziest things in this world. Then human make mistakes that damage to their own well being, then they will learn from that and improve. It is evolution process, however, greed can blind human wise and paying much worse consequence. Look at out own mind and be a wise men at most. It could be time for US to concentrate its internal affairs and put down its arrogance.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:02 am | Reply
  14. Pat

    Obama did this ,Obama did that , he messed up this , he messed up that !!!

    F-22 Fighter Plane cost 358 million each and the U.S. Military had 187 of them built before he was elected President.


    I guess he's responible for that waste also.

    Just the rich helping the rich get richer !!!!

    But we can't help a struggling mother or father take care of their family , THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK !!!!

    October 11, 2013 at 10:32 am | Reply
  15. Pat

    Looking forward to election day.

    Bye Bye Republicans !!!!!

    October 12, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  16. Pat

    It's been a long time coming but thank GOD the day is here and people can finally see them for who they are.

    October 12, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
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