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Budget fight a perfect storm of issues roiling US

Wednesday - 10/2/2013, 9:46am  ET

FILE - In this Sept. 30, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. It's a political perfect storm: The pairing of a government shutdown with the rollout of the new health care law illustrates all sorts of partisan and cultural tensions in America. Big government vs. small. The Republican Party's identity crisis. Declining trust in government. And plenty more. A chunky-text look at underlying issues roiling the nation. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

CALVIN WOODWARD
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's a political perfect storm: The pairing of a government shutdown with the rollout of a big chunk of the health care law is illustrating all sorts of partisan and cultural tensions that are roiling America. Big government vs. small. The Republican Party's identity crisis. Sharpening political divisions among Americans. And plenty more.

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HOW BIG IS TOO BIG?

Dueling images of the government powering itself down just as Americans for the first time are logging on to Obamacare's new health-insurance exchanges bring into high relief a debate that Americans have been having since the birth of the nation. How much government do we really need? How much is too much?

The Founding Fathers rejected the tyranny of kings and apportioned powers among Congress, the states, the executive and the courts in a balance that Americans of diverse beliefs have argued over ever since. Ronald Reagan famously declared government the problem, not the solution -- then added to its size. Bill Clinton announced the end of the era of big government -- and pared it back. Barack Obama won election -- twice -- holding out the promise of an activist government that could do so much more for its citizens.

Now, Republicans have turned Obamacare into a political metaphor for what they hold out as the heavy hand of Washington. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said people in his state are telling him that if shutting things down "is the only way to stop the runaway train called the federal government, then we're willing to try it."

Others question whether it's a fair fight.

"There are no Republicans who talk about Obamacare as anything other than socialized medicine, a government takeover of the health care system," says Calvin Mackenzie, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine. "Anybody who's studied Obamacare would find that a hard conclusion to draw."

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GOP SOUL SEARCHING

Sure, there's a huge clash between Republicans and Democrats unfolding in Washington. But the more interesting struggle is playing out within the Republican Party, whose tea party contingent is forcing even conservative members to tack ever farther right and making it harder for Congress to find common ground on all sorts of big problems -- not just the budget.

House Speaker John Boehner was reluctant to provoke a shutdown but ultimately bowed to pressure from tea partyers in his caucus insistent on linking the fight over Obamacare with financing for the government.

Obama put the blame for Washington's paralysis all on "one faction of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government." That was an oversimplification, no doubt, but one that summed up the roiling divisions in the Capitol and within the GOP. It laid bare the sense among Democrats that the tea party is not just an opposing force, but a corrosive one.

There are plenty of Republicans who are fine with a government shutdown. But others in the GOP worry that the party is heading for a repeat of the 2012 elections in which GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a number of conservative candidates for Congress didn't have enough appeal with moderates to produce GOP victories.

The standoff over Obamacare could be a moment of truth for a party trying to determine its direction.

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THE HEALTH CARE DILEMMA

The president accuses GOP critics of Obamacare of trying to keep people uninsured; Republicans say they're waging a principled fight against a mammoth government overreach.

Both arguments oversimplify the debate. At the heart of Obamacare are complicated questions of what kind of health care Americans are entitled to, how much they should have to pay and how to rein in the huge share of U.S. economic activity that is swallowed up by health care costs.

Americans spend nearly 20 cents of every dollar on health care.

What worries economists most is the rate of growth. The nation's health care tab has consistently grown faster than just about everything else, outpacing wages and the gross domestic product. That means it could crowd out other priorities, such as business investment and government spending on education.

Government programs cover more than 100 million Americans -- about 1 in 3 people. That share is going to grow as Obama's health care law takes hold.

But unlike many other developed nations, the United States seems likely to keep its mix of employer coverage, government programs and individual responsibility instead of adopting a government-run model for all.

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NANNY WARS

The Obamacare debate touches on a long-running debate in America about the idea of a "nanny state" -- when the government goes too far in protecting people from themselves.

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