If you want to know what led to the government shutdown, all you need to do is listen to the argument between the popular conservative radio host Mark Levin and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Johnson, one of the most conservative senators in the country, was elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave. Since the beginning of the shutdown crisis, I and many others have argued that the issue is between moderate and extreme Republicans, not Republicans and Democrats. The Levin-Johnson argument demonstrates that point perfectly.
At the height of the shutdown crisis, Levin demanded that Johnson come up with a “strategy” to defund Obamacare and accomplish everything Levin, his listeners, and supporters want. That’s just plain silly. It’s not possible. The strategy Levin supports is great for ratings but terrible for the country and the Republican Party.
Please understand: Johnson is a really, really, really conservative guy. Like, way out there on the right. He says, believes, and votes in a very conservative way. He voted against the Employment Non Discrimination Act. He has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. He doesn’t believe abortion should be legal. He believes marriage should be only between consenting adults with opposing reproductive organs. He doesn’t trust scientists on climate change. He even voted against a bill to benefit the disabled and supported by former Republican leader and World War II veteran Bob Dole. In front of Dole! On the Senate floor! I looked hard to find Johnson saying or voting for anything a liberal American would agree with and came up empty.
I don’t think it’s unfair or insulting to say Johnson lives on the far right of American political thinking. However, he is still a senator, not a talk show host like Levin. It’s easy to achieve your goal—getting ratings and entertaining people—when you are as smart and talented as Levin is. But a senator has a much harder task. He has to work with others whom he is often at complete odds with. He can’t hang up on someone who disagrees with him if he wants to get things done. To pass or repeal laws, he needs the votes. Johnson and his Republican friends in the U.S. Senate don’t have them, no matter how much Levin and others like him yell and scream.
Senators understand that at the end of the day, their job is to get something done. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the support of a radio host with millions of listeners telling the audience how to vote and whom to pressure, but if the votes aren’t there, you can’t repeal a law.
The job of a terrestrial radio show host, on the other hand, is to entertain and sell advertising and, in Levin’s case, books. He has written quite a few bestsellers.
Levin and other radio performers, commentators, and columnists see it as their responsibility to demand purity on every vote and issue. They gain respect and larger audiences the more they vent the anger and frustration of their listeners by calling people names and hanging up on those who argue with them. If there is nothing to be outraged by, it’s their job to create something. That is how it works in radio. But that isn’t how it works in Washington, D.C., or any state capital in America.
Demanding that Johnson come up with a strategy to repeal Obamacare or else destroy the economy and the country is absurd. Talking tough to a senator and speaking truth to power is respectable. Demanding they develop the powers of a Jedi is crazy. Levin is an expert on the Constitution, but no matter how loud he yells, he isn’t going to get the president of the United States to repeal a pathway to affordable insurance coverage for hardworking Americans who have never been able to get it.
If you want to know why the government shut down, you need only to listen to these two very conservative Americans argue about “strategy.” The shutdown happened because the right-wing media wanted the people they helped get elected to perform miracles. It’s easy to demand outcomes on the radio and sound tough. It’s hard to achieve outcomes in Washington when you don’t have the votes. This fight continues to be between conservative commentators and their listeners, whose words have no consequences, and conservative lawmakers—whose votes do.