Republican Ted Cruz speaks during the "Exempt America from Obamacare" rally, on Capitol Hill. Photo: Getty Images
Australians should watch the shutdown shenanigans in Washington- and soon the debt limit shenanigans - with more than the ordinary interest for matters affecting our credit, our currency and world economic growth. They could contain a harbinger of chapter two of new adversarial Australian politics.
Tony Abbott, now that he is Prime Minister, has given the appearance of being very friendly and agreeable to all. But he is there in part because of the spectacular success of his strategy and tactics as opposition leader. There he played the total oppositionist, without the slightest interest in playing the statesman, supporting good policy no matter from where it came, or in abiding by the usual conventions of being a ''loyal'' opposition.
He believed, or hoped, he could drive some sort of wedge between minority Labor and the handful of independents on whose vote it depended in the House of Representatives. So he played very hardball - even on the courtesies such as pairs - in the hope of making government very difficult, and of seizing power at any moment. The opposition was, at times, prepared to play for short-term political gain, even at risk to foreign policy, the lives of refugees, or the stability of the economy.
And even as it overemphasised, and oversimplified, its claim that Gillard's shift on carbon taxing was a ''lie'', Abbott showed by his voting record, whether in 2007-2009, or 2010-2013, that he had no regard for any concept of a Labor mandate to do anything with which the opposition disagreed. [Deciding not to oppose the repeal of WorkChoices was not because of recognising a Labor mandate but Coalition acceptance it was electoral poison.]
Abbott had every right to play the bastard from whom the government could expect no help at all. There is no law against it, and who in modern conservatism cares a fig for traditions, conventions or precedents? Smooth governing was Gillard's problem, not his. And he, after all, was running the risks from his tactics, as it happened successfully. Thus he hardly recoiled at the ceaseless Labor claims that he was ''too negative'', even if that was to weigh in the balance against any gains he made from doing so.
Over in the United States, politics has become very toxic. And not only as between Republican and Democrat politics represented in Congress or the White House. There is now a huge gulf - possibly as big as that which existed at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s - between the mindsets, and in some cases, the geographic, social, cultural and economic circumstances, of people who see themselves as Democrats and those who see themselves as Republicans. A part of that is in play in the so far carefully staged cliffhangers on show in Washington. The stakes are high indeed, if only because one side has to win and another lose.
There is no win-win solution on offer, and no one is looking for one. But the win being sought by either side is a decisive political win. For that, each side is willing to risk blowing up the whole nation. Possibly literally.
To say that no one is looking for compromise is not exactly true. A significant number of Republican legislators - moderate to conventionally right wing - are desperate for a solution, even a backdown that will leave them with some slight vestige of honour. That includes the Republican Speaker, John Boehner.
But a minority of Republicans are Tea Party representatives, and a further proportion fear that their re-election prospects will be enormously damaged if they are challenged, from the right, by critics of Tea Party philosophy. That challenge will be that they did not use every breath - even if necessary their last - to make a significant reduction to the size of government, particularly to the (socialist) welfare state. For the sake of argument, significant can be taken to equal 25 per cent or more, not some piddly change in the rate of change of growth.
On the evidence, the Tea Party populist movement is right out of step with American public opinion, and its influence on the Republican Party is one of the reasons Barack Obama won re-election last year at the expense of Mitt Romney. But in politics (even in Australia) one of the consequences of being a loser is that as one loses followers, one also loses followerships, except of the truly committed. The more the Republicans are rejected by the American people for being under the influence of extremists, the more moderates walk away and the more the party is at the mercy of toxic extremists. Thus a certain Republican willingness to commit general political suicide rather than risk their comfortable seats.
The shutdown side of it - brought on by the (Democrat) Senate's refusal to adopt a (Republican) House of Representatives resolution giving Obama short-term conditional supply provided, in effect, that he delayed Obamacare for a year - is bad for American domestic growth. It is not as wicked, or unprecedented, as some suggest. But it is just a lead-up to a vote, later this month, on whether to approve an increase in the US government debt ceiling. If Congress rejects this - and Republican threats about it are real - there is a serious risk of default on massive US debt. Who knows where it could end - but it could bring on a depression greater than the global financial crisis.
That one side of politics can contemplate this with equanimity is a reflection not only of the Tea Party's view of where America already is, as a result of (in its view) years of profligate spending, deficits and debt-raising and ever more sinister intrusion into everyone's lives, but the belief that government must be reborn in some much more limited form - focused primarily only on providing basic national defence and law and order.
Tea Partyists may not actually want some international economic cataclysm to bring Washington to its senses. Indeed they are very vague about the process of the transition to their nirvana. But they are certain that ''we'' can't go on as we have been going, and that politicians who tinker and posture but who continue to rubber-stamp the current quantum levels of government are a complete waste of time.
Central to their notion of themselves is a deep sense of trauma about the very legitimacy of government from Washington. It is there even when a George W. Bush is in charge. How much more so when the White House is occupied by aliens. And how much more so when the aliens are not even white. Or of Anglo-Saxon stock. As even rueful moderate Republicans commented in the aftermath of Romney's defeat, the present Republican flag waves primarily to white folk of northern European heritage, particularly males. It positively alienates blacks and Hispanics, as well as a good many young professionals, particularly those who, in Australia, would be called of the cafe latte set.
It's not so much that the chasm is unbridgeable, as that those on one side seem to have no interest in crossing it if one were built. Who wants to deal with what the American Spectator - an only slightly loopy example of Republican thinking - calls ''a Marxist infiltrator who is not culturally an American but raised during his formative years in Muslim Indonesia''.
How does this get to Australia? Abbott made central to his oppositionism efforts to attack the authority, legitimacy and even balance of prime minister Gillard. Implicitly, she had no right to be there. By rights, he should be prime minister (presumably because two ex-Nationals should have supported the opposition). Therefore she had no right to respect, to dignity, to space within which to operate, or a certain scope for discretion within the governing framework. Nor were there any degrees to bastardry - it was all on everywhere all the time.
Skilfully, by election eve, he had narrowed his barrage to a few chosen areas, and had more or less dropped his complaints about Labor's management of the economy, of education, of health, and even of infrastructure. This helped voters make a choice - which was unquestionably for him - but it also invited questions of what they voted for.
Ten days ago, the new Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, said that he had not come simply to administer Labor policies more effectively and efficiently. There was a Liberal government now, and it would operate by its own philosophy, ideas and priorities. Yes, but is this not in an area where Abbott insisted there was not a cigarette paper's worth of difference between Labor and Liberal policies?
Abbott made a virtue of insisting that he would not negotiate with independents. He was implying lower house independents (who may now include Clive Palmer) and saying he would not form a minority government. But that is not now his problem. The independents or small parties with which he now has to deal are in the Senate - whether between now and June 30, with a Labor-Greens majority, or with a ragbag of right-wing groupings after the new Senate forms next August. If Palmer can keep his party united, he will have an effective veto over Abbott's plans if Labor and the Greens are also opposed. A double dissolution will not necessarily resolve Abbott's problems.
The Labor leadership election has made it clear that Labor will not bow to any idea of a mandate on carbon tax. Nor will the Greens. Both Labor and the opposition may well be sufficiently embittered by Abbott's tactics and past abuse that they return it to him in spades, making it very difficult for him to govern effectively. The Abbott example has shown that voters will tend to blame the government, not opposition obstruction, for any failure in sound administration (at least provided the rhetoric is right).
So why listen to appeals about principle? Or reason? Or the interests of good government? Or of the economy? Or even of Australia's standing in the world? That's Abbott's problem now. These considerations never troubled him in opposition; why should not the shit happen to him now?
There are Labor people whose personal hatred of Abbott is so visceral, or whose bitterness about the delegitimisation of Labor so great, that for them any act of revenge, no matter how petty, is justified. Some will argue that Labor can construct its own ''narrative'', program, policies and appeal to the people without the supposed disciplines of parliamentary debates it cannot win. Some, moreover, will ask why they should play in games in which the dice are so cynically loaded - whether because of the bias of the Murdoch media, or the cynical way that a Coalition which exploited access to information to flay a Labor government is now consciously restricting public access to any understanding of what is going on.
In my opinion, this would be a disastrous path for a party whose appeal, when there is one, must always depend on an emotional and moral, as well as intellectual, honesty with the voter. But it is not hard to understand why some think Abbott deserves pure tit for tat, with extra added bile and prejudice. All the more so while he will feel a little circumscribed, at least for a while, by genuine uncertainty about when the next election must be. For if there's yet another lesson from the election, it is that skilful and bastardly oppositions can be as good at framing election issues as governments.