Republicans should learn from Italian MPs.
Italy is in a financial jam. The coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta has the tough job of starting to sort out a mess, that has seen the country's credit rating plunge toward junk status. The danger is that Rome could still have to seek a bailout from fellow Eurozone states in order to avoid default and bankruptcy.
Letta's government, elected in April this year, needed stability to make far-reaching reforms. It lost that stability when maverick former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the Forza Italia party, ordered the party's five Cabinet minister in Letta's Cabinet to resign. The government was on the brink of collapse. Letta called a vote of confidence. Berlusconi ordered his MPs to vote against, thus almost inevitably forcing yet a further election. Then something unexpected happened. Berlusconi's MPs threatened to rebel. They were not prepared to jeopardize the country's financial stability purely on the grounds of political advantage.
Veteran political commentators could hardly believe what they were hearing. Italian politics has always been about jockeying for power in endless elections, while the state machine was largely left to quietly mismanage itself.
Yet here it seemed were Berlusconi's followers prepared to put Italy's stability ahead of their leader's interests. Threatened with immediate humiliation, at the last minute Berlusconi changed his mind. He ordered the Letta coalition be supported. The government thus won its vote of confidence convincingly.
Yet look across the Atlantic at Washington, where much of the government is already shut down thanks to a bitter standoff over the budget. Republican legislators are seeking to dilute, if not indeed emasculate entirely the healthcare reform law, popularly known as Obamacare. Passed by the Democrats in 2010, endorsed by the Supreme Court in the face of a Republican challenge and a key campaign issue in the 2012 presidential election, part of the law came into operation this week.
Yet despite past legislative endorsement, despite the ruling of the highest court in the nation and the clear view of US voters in re-electing Obama last year, some Republican senators are being standouts. By refusing to complete work on passing the US budget, the entire government machine is shutting down. Ahead lie equally difficult negotiations on the US federal debt ceiling. As matters currently stand, these seem certain to be dogged by the self-same issue. The very real prospect therefore is not just that will the American governmental machine continue to shut down. It could be that the most economically and militarily powerful nation on earth will be forced into default on its debts and therefore bankruptcy.
This is the very same prospect that faced Berlusconi's MPs when he ordered them to vote to bring down the government. In the end, they put the country's interests first. Perhaps they were disgusted by the grubby motives behind their leader's order. Convicted of tax fraud and pedophilia, Berlusconi is due to go to jail next month for the former crime. A snap election would have let his lawyers argue he should remain at liberty to lead his party. Negotiations for a fresh coalition would then have involved some stay of the prison sentence. Even its complete overturning and the ordering of a retrial. Forza Italia's MPs may have had enough of the once-entertaining clown and multi-billionaire who has dominated Italian politics for over 20 years. They have seized the moral high ground, while kicking Berlusconi off a cliff at the edge. In the end however, their motives are less important than the effect of what they have done. They have allowed Prime Minister Letta to get on with restoring Italy's fortunes.
No such instinct appears to exist with the Republican diehards in the US Congress. They, it seems, would rather see their nation in financial ruins than permit the continuation of a piece of legislation that brings healthcare insurance to all Americans. Their Berlusconi-style promotion of self-interest in the face of any other consideration is an astonishing feat of arrogance. It is also politically blind. The Obama administration and the Democrats are beginning to reap a rich harvest of public opinion.
The Obamacare standouts seem destined to follow the cunning but vulgar and selfish Berlusconi into the political wilderness. Many would argue that that is where they belong.
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