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Current US Political Crisis Decades in the Making

President Barack Obama gestures while speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Oct. 1, 2013, about the government shutdown.
President Barack Obama gestures while speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Oct. 1, 2013, about the government shutdown.
— The ongoing partial shutdown of the U.S. government is the culmination of years of political polarization in the United States with roots that go back at least two decades.

At the heart of the dispute in Washington is a clash between the two major political parties over the role of the central government in American life.

Political polarization began to ramp up significantly in the early to mid-1990s following the election of Democrat Bill Clinton as president. Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.  Differences over spending and the role of government sparked two government shutdowns.

The bitterly contested presidential election of 2000 in which George W. Bush was elected president also exacerbated the partisan political climate.

University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato traces the deepening of the partisan political battles to President Bush’s second term.

“There is no question that the polarization increased first with the Bush presidency, because of the Iraq war and his handling of Hurricane Katrina," he said. "Then it accelerated once President Obama was elected.”

The partisan divide grew wider when Obama pushed his signature health care reform law through Congress in 2010 without a single Republican vote.  That in turn helped to fuel the rise of conservative Tea Party groups around the country, an important conservative voting bloc within the Republican Party.

House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., left, looks on as Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Oct. 1, 2013.House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., left, looks on as Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Oct. 1, 2013.
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House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., left, looks on as Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Oct. 1, 2013.
House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., left, looks on as Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Oct. 1, 2013.
The health care law, also known as Obamacare, is at the heart of the current shutdown dispute between the White House and Congress. Republicans have made several attempts to either defund the law or delay its implementation.  

Obama believes the law is the signature achievement of his presidency, and with the support of congressional Democrats is resisting any attempt to block or delay it. 

Behind the fight over Obamacare is a sharply divergent view over the role of government, says Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown.

“Republicans like smaller government and lower government spending and therefore are more opposed to Obamacare," Brown said. "Democrats tend to be more supportive in general of government solutions to problems and they see Obamacare as the right thing to do to help on the health care issue.”

Opposition to the health care law is led by a core group of conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives, many of whom now count on strong support from Tea Party activists to get elected.

Sabato says many of them are willing, at least for now, to accept the political blame for forcing the government to shut down.

“They will pay a bigger price but they seem willing to pay it in part because most of their members are in completely safe [congressional] districts," he said. "The only thing they have to worry about is a challenge from the right in the Republican primary. So they do not want to let anybody get to their right.”

Some of the Republican opposition is also driven by a deep-seeded animosity toward Obama, says analyst Charlie Cook.

“There are a lot of Republicans where if President Obama said ‘up’, they would say ‘down.’  I mean, they will do the opposite just sort of no matter what," Cook said.

For the moment, Sabato sees no quick resolution of the shutdown, which only adds to the political uncertainty given that Congress will soon have to raise the borrowing limit or risk the U.S. defaulting on its loan payments.

“They are so deeply polarized by party and by institution that it is difficult to see, if people stick to the principles they have articulated, how this is going to be resolved," he said, adding that "...it could go on and on.  And of course it will do tremendous damage, not just to our economy but to our image around the world.”

The last government shutdown began in December of 1995 and lasted three weeks.  Analysts say Republicans paid a political price for the shutdown and that the fallout probably helped President Bill Clinton win a second term in 1996.

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