Distilling a theretofore-untamed talking point into a single sentence, The Atlantic’s Abby Olheiser complained somewhat tenuously on Monday that the National Park Service, which has recently been running around the country doing all sorts of unconscionable things in the name of the federal shutdown, “wouldn’t have to become the next iteration of the Benghazi mantra if a bill — which is sitting in the House of Representatives and would fund the government at sequester levels — were brought up for a vote and passed, ensuring that the government, and the parks, would reopen as soon as possible.” This, suffice it to say, is rather obviously true.
It is also wholly irrelevant. Of course the executive branch would be not be playing these games if the shutdown had not happened. In that case, the government octopus would be swimming inexorably forward as it usually does, all of its tentacles intact. The more important point to grasp here is not that the various heavy-handed antics in which the Park Service has seen fit to indulge itself since last Monday are unimaginable absent a shutdown, but that almost none of them had to happen because of the shutdown. The offending behavior has, in other words, been a choice — a deliberate ploy contrived and prosecuted by a man seeking to make a public point.
Perhaps it is the product of the Manichean way in which partisan fights such as this one encourage people to think. Perhaps it is a morbid fear of being accused of “false equivalence.” Perhaps tempers are just so frayed at this point that none of us can see straight. But whatever it is, few progressives appear willing to acknowledge that, regardless of where the blame lies for its arrival, the White House has not reacted to the shutdown well at all. Barack Obama has the authority to stop such troublemaking. Why has he not used it?
To deny that the executive branch is going out of its way unnecessarily to make life difficult for people — as many still are — is to pretend that the hundreds of such stories, reported daily across the country, are falsehoods manufactured to hurt the president. Yes, government shutdowns have consequences — even shutdowns that leave 83 percent of the government operating as usual. But, consequences or not, there really is no good reason for the federal government to send barricades and wire-ties to unguarded open-air parks, to close off unmanned scenic overlooks, to evict homeowners from their private property on public land, or to threaten the livelihoods of hoteliers whose sole crime is to own a business on an unsecured public route.
There is no good reason, either, for the government to shut down the index pages of some, arbitrarily chosen, websites while leaving the rest of the pages running. No good reason for the federal government to try to close Mount Vernon and Claude Moore Colonial Farm, neither of which it owns or runs. No good reason for the federal government to threaten to cancel the Air Force–Navy football game when there were private donors waiting on the sidelines. And certainly no reason for armed rangers to hold senior-citizen tourists hostage inside their Yellowstone Park hotel for the high crime of stepping outside and taking photographs.
As NR’s editors observed on Monday, there is a substantial difference between authorities’ barring access to sites that have gates and their barricading open spaces that do not. “It takes federal action to close the sites,” this website’s editorial noted, “and none to keep them open. This is not what an inactive government looks like, but a spiteful one.” An anonymous Park Service ranger confirmed that malice to the Washington Times last week: Staff, the employee said, had “been told to “make life as difficult for people as we can. It’s disgusting.”
Such orders are representative of a deep and unlovely philosophical instinct. The reason that services close during a government shutdown is that there is no money to pay for them. This is why staff are furloughed, facilities are closed, and, in extreme cases, why checks don’t get cut. But what happens if there is enough money? Traditionally, the answer is that every effort is made to inconvenience people as little as is humanly possible.
Not this time. In Wisconsin, the Journal Sentinel reported early in the week, the federal Park Service “ordered state officials to close the northern unit of the Kettle Moraine, Devil’s Lake, and Interstate state parks and the state-owned portion of the Horicon Marsh, but state authorities rebuffed the request because the lion’s share of the funding came from state, not federal coffers.” Here, the federal government wasn’t so much regretfully informing the public that the money had run dry as it was attempting to remove its Royal blessing from a local Lord who does not rely on it. Nobody who genuinely recognizes government as the deferential servant of a naturally free people would view the state this way. Peeved Kings, convinced of their divine right and keen to demonstrate the folly of recalcitrant subjects, on the other hand, most certainly would. “It’s my party, and you’ll cry if I want you to,” our mandarins in D.C. appeared to say.
Progressives who thrill to shrill accusations that their ideological opponents are “spoiled children” should be ashamed of the way in which their supposedly adult leaders have elected to respond. “Reality has a liberal bias,” one of my less original Twitter stalkers told me nervously earlier in the week in the course of manfully pretending that nothing was awry. No, not really. Reality has a truth bias. Blame Republicans for the wider impasse if you wish — or blame Obama, or Harry Reid, or the whole damn lot of them. But don’t pretend that the news popping up around the country is consistent with the “first-class temperament” that the president is supposed to possess. It is nothing of the sort — and people are beginning to notice.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.