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Shutdown driving debate over role of government

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WASHINGTON -

The lingering federal shutdown is transforming a musty debate over the role of government in America into a coast-to-coast, prime-time reality show. 

With landmarks closed, paychecks delayed and workers furloughed, Americans are drawing dueling lessons from the rippling effects of the partial shutdown: The disruptions show that the feds are way too involved in people's lives or that the government does a lot of vital things that people take for granted.

There's a messaging war underway to see which viewpoint will prevail. But any shift in public opinion also may well hinge on how much, or how little, people are personally affected as the shutdown drags on.

"It definitely has brought to life what's going on," says Pamela Jones, a lawyer from Richmond, Calif., who's noticing the shutdown's effects all around her, in closed national parks, disrupted weddings, shuttered restaurants and "life moments and events destroyed."

Jones, 54, a Democrat and fiscal conservative, finds herself torn in the too-much, too-little debate over the federal government, and says the shutdown at least is giving "more information to the common man, so to speak."

Jim Chenye, a former marketing manager in Birmingham, Ala., sees no argument for the importance of government in the shutdown's rippling effects.

"I'm never an advocate of a larger federal government," says Chenye, 64, a Republican. The shutdown and debt ceiling debate show the government's broken, Chenye says, but he figures the annoyances of the moment will be long forgotten before people vote in the 2016 elections.

Politicians of all stripes are trying to use the shutdown to buttress long-held positions on the role of the federal government.

Arguing for an activist government, President Barack Obama talks up the plight of hard-working federal workers and the importance of government loans to farmers and small businesses. He laments the shuttered monuments and locked offices, the benefit checks delayed, the veterans awaiting help, the little kids who've "been sent home from the safe places where they learn and grow every single day."

"This is something that is concretely affecting real people," Obama argues.

Republican leaders in Congress say they, too, want to see the government reopened. But there's a prominent subtext in which many in the party take a far more unforgiving view of the bureaucracy.

"People are going to realize they can live with a lot less government," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., predicted early on.

Polls show people long have been divided on just what the government's role should be.

An AP-GfK poll this month found that 60 percent of Americans favor a "smaller government providing fewer services" while 35 percent want a bigger government that does more.

A Gallup poll in early September found that 53 percent of Americans thought "the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses," while 40 percent said the "government should do more to solve our country's problems."

As the shutdown continues, a key question is how long people will hold firm to their old positions on the role of government.

Republican analyst Rich Galen said people who started out disliking the federal government are likely to look at the shutdown's effects and say, "See, the world is still spinning on its axis, even with these shutdowns and those 800,000 people furloughed. Apparently we don't need them. They're not critical."

But Galen added that every type of government spending "has a champion, and these are services that we are demanding."

"When it's your house that's underwater or your house that got blown over by a tornado, boy, do you want FEMA there," referring to the federal disaster relief agency.

William Galston, a former Clinton administration official, agreed that, at least initially, people were apt to see the shutdown through their own ideological prism.

But he added, "There is a real world out there. And as the consequences of the shutdown spread, as more and more normal government functions simply are unavailable and as people encounter problems that they didn't expect, they will perhaps respond differently."

Galston had his own example to cite, noting that a document he needs for research on a paper he's writing suddenly became unavailable when the Library of Congress took down its website.

"I think a lot of people are going to discover that routine functions that they weren't thinking about are going to be unavailable and the zone of inconvenience is going to expand," he said.

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AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nbenac


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