The Republicans & Walter White: Breaking Bad Over Obamacare
There is a scene in the third season of AMC’s Breaking Bad in which Walter White, sleep-deprived and on a large dose of sleeping pills, muses on the thought that he has lived too long. The show, for the few still unaware, centres on a high school chemistry teacher who turns to the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine when he is diagnosed with cancer, slowly becoming a feared and ruthless drug lord in the process. In the episode in question, he laments that he had missed his ‘perfect moment’ to succumb to his cancer – a point where he had made enough money to take care of his family without giving up too much of himself.
Although opinion is divided, the point he chooses (at the end of season two) is one of the candidates held up as the moment that he fully crosses over the line from Walter White, loving husband and father, to his drug-dealing alter-ego Heisenberg; a cruel, murderous villain.
The Republican Party currently stands perched upon this line. They have shaved their collective head, grown a goatee and bought the hat Walt uses to complete his Heisenberg persona, and now they stand, one toe left in the civilised world. The decision is theirs; whether to accept a deal to raise the debt ceiling, or go full Heisenberg and send the United States, and possibly the world, into chaos.
It is fitting that for both Walter White and the Republican Party, the spark for their descent into violent insanity was healthcare. For the Republicans, this took the form of opposition to the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), which was passed in 2010. Regardless of one’s own opinion of Obamacare as a law, or universal healthcare as a concept, opposition to its implementation is not an unreasonable position to take. Republicans raised ideological and practical points against it, it was debated and amended, and eventually passed by both houses and signed by the President into law.
This was not the end though. Just as it quickly became clear to Walter White that his meth business would not be the clean, limited operation he had hoped for, the Republicans realised Obamacare could not simply be voted down in Congress. At that point, both faced a choice over whether to back down or play dirty, and both chose the latter.
It is important to remember however, that even when Walt made this decision, the audience were still on his side because he was doing it in order to pay for his treatment and provide for his family. He was still Walter White, just showing flashes of Heisenberg when he needed to. Likewise, the Republican Party, even while their attacks became wilder and the Tea Party became stronger, still appeared to hold the genuine belief that they had the best interests of the nation at heart. Opinion was (and still is) divided over Obamacare, and especially in the more Republican constituencies, people were happy that their representatives were taking a stand.
But just as Walt missed his chance to die a hero, so did the Republicans. It is hard to pinpoint when exactly they should have dropped the fight over Obamacare – maybe in June 2012 when the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. Maybe when Mitt Romney, running on an anti-Obamacare platform, lost the election. Maybe as late as two weeks ago, instead of embarking on this suicidal shutdown. Whenever the perfect point was, it has certainly passed.
The tragic thing is that certain Republicans appear to believe that missing the perfect time to back down means that they never can.
Obamacare is no longer the issue in this fight. The deficit never was – in fact it has plunged from 10% to 4% of GDP in the last four years. The issue is pride, power and relevance. Walter White may have started selling meth to provide for his family, but he continued because of his ego and vanity. The Republicans may have started this battle because they legitimately believed Obamacare was bad for the country, but they now stand one day away from self-inflicted catastrophe because they have been too proud to give in.
The idea of Walter White returning to his old life teaching chemistry after having tasted the intoxicating power of Heisenberg is unthinkable. With this in mind, it is perhaps understandable why this small group of extremist House Republicans who currently hold the country in the palm of their hands do not want to let go. They must, however, and despite yesterday’s defeated proposals, they will. The alternative is just too bad. At the time of writing, a new Senate deal appears ‘very close‘, and it appears that this entirely manufactured crisis will be averted. Of course, it never should have started in the first place, but as Walt and the Republicans alike discovered, each step forward makes it much harder to turn back.
In the aforementioned episode of Breaking Bad, Walt laments that ‘there must exist certain words in a certain specific order that can explain all of this, but… I just can’t ever seem to find them‘. While he is talking about his meth business, the same sentiment is surely shared by everyone trying to make sense of this debt ceiling battle. When the shutdown began, I wrote that every now and then in American politics, something arises that is ‘so alien as to be bordering on incomprehensible‘. While the desire for power and the driving force of pride that produced this crisis are understandable, the fact that it was allowed to go on so long is far past comprehension.
If for some reason it goes on past tomorrow, it could be catastrophe.