Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Shutdown could be shock therapy

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
October 2, 2013 -- Updated 0029 GMT (0829 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen: Shutdown would hurt people in need, the U.S. economy and markets
  • Gergen: We've had shutdowns, but never a default, which may lead to global meltdown
  • Default could happen in three weeks, he says, so it would force parties to solve problems
  • Gergen: Shutdown would give Obama chance to take charge and get us out of this mess

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Driven by a hard-line faction of conservatives, Washington has done something terribly stupid: shutting down the national government. Most of America is aghast. But it is also just possible that doing something stupid will help us avoid doing something truly dangerous.

Shutdowns are a lousy way to run a government. Just for starters, this one has cut off services to women and children in need, furloughed hundreds of thousands, further shaken the confidence of the public, sent a shudder through the financial world and created new storm clouds over the economy. And once again the world is wondering about our capacity for leadership.

But all of this damage pales in comparison with the danger posed by a second, lurking threat: a default on our public finances.

The United States has had 17 government shutdowns since 1977 and has generally recovered well. But we have never had a default. Experts, while not fully certain, are convinced that it could be hugely destructive -- even leading to a worldwide financial meltdown. Unless Congress and the White House get their act together, we could default in less than three weeks.

But a shutdown could have a silver lining. It could be such an electric shock to the political system that it forces the politicians in Washington to settle their squabbles before the default deadline.

What we know from past shutdowns is that not only citizens -- especially older ones dependent on Social Security and Medicare -- start raising hell, but so do business and financial leaders who see damage rippling across their economic interests. Politicians are increasingly seen as villains. Pressure tends to grow so unbearable that eventually Washington finds a solution.

Most of the pressure this time will be directed toward Republicans who have misplayed their hand. A new poll by CNN/ORC shows that 46% of Americans blame the shutdown on Republicans, seeing them as spoiled children. Thirty six percent blame President Obama, and 13% point fingers at both.

Peter King: Ted Cruz 'is a fraud'
The man behind the government shutdown
The finances of a shutdown

Seasoned GOP leaders across the country know that if the shutdown does serious damage, chances of Republicans picking up Senate seats in 2014 and the White House in 2016 could evaporate. Those leaders will push intensely for a way out.

But Republicans are not the only ones who will come under pressure to find a settlement. So will Democrats, starting with President Obama. We expect our presidents to be leaders of all the people, not a single party or ideology. We want them to rise above the squabbling and keep us on track. The harsh rhetoric that the president has been directing at Republicans suggests that he is less interested in settlement than unconditional surrender.

Moreover, as Republicans make their counterarguments, it is becoming increasingly apparent that they have some valid questions. Is Obamacare truly ready for prime time? Shouldn't the two parties work together on the tax code? When is Washington going to get serious about overhauling the entitlement programs so they will survive for coming generations?

Yes, conservative hard-liners have chosen the wrong place to fight; arguments over Obamacare are no excuse to shut down the government. Yes, hard-liners like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are creating deeper partisan divides. But Democrats can ill afford to continue rejecting any talks or negotiations.

Now that the shutdown has happened, Obama has a fresh opportunity -- indeed a fresh responsibility -- to seize the mantle of leadership and get us out of this mess. Instead of just blaming the Republicans, he should call in the leaders of both parties and in Lyndon Johnson fashion, keep 'em talking till they get a deal.

With the shutdown underway, the president has new leverage to say, "Look, we are here to negotiate a settlement so that we can reopen the government. We are not here to negotiate over a possible default; I have said all along that I won't do that. But those of you who have been listening closely know that I have also been saying that I am open to conversations about settling our policy differences so that we can keep the government running.

"Tax reform, entitlement reform and even some tweaking of the Affordable Care Act are on the table now. I have only two conditions: I will not accept a gutting of Obamacare -- we settled that at the ballot box in 2012 -- and any settlement here must include a pledge not to let the country go into default. So, let's get started."

Would it work? Who knows for sure? But one thing is clear: If enough Americans rise up now and pressure politicians in Washington to call off this circus, we could not only end this foolishness over a shutdown, but we could also avoid a truly dangerous default. And we could hold our heads up again.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT