A lot of the talk from progressives (and I plead guilty to doing this myself on occasion) about the government shutdown and/or the impending possibility of a debt default suggests House Republicans are suffering from some sort of temporary insanity, or are indulging some sort of temporary temper tantrum by a faction they cannot ignore but can outlast. This habit flows from the broader sense that the Tea Party movement is some sort of temporary phenomenon–a “fever,” as the president famously put it–that will go away to be replaced by good, stolid, “moderate” conservatism sooner rather than later. You see it in the high hosannas raised every time yet another poll shows the percentage of voters identifying with the Tea Party–as opposed to the Republican Party that has largely internalized Tea Party policies and strategies–declining.
This attitude is perfectly understandable, but risks a major misunderstanding of what conservatives are up to at any given moment. Yes, many of them have a remarkably radical vision for America all right, which involves bringing back the idyllic government of the Coolidge administration and patriarchal culture of the Eisenhower administration. But they are pursuing an entirely rational if risky strategy for getting from here to way back there, based on three overlapping perspectives that are reasonably common in the conservative commentariat:
1) Radicalism on spending is the hand voters have dealt the GOP. The “defunding Obamacare” strategy has always been based on the leverage Republicans had after 2012 in maintaining control of just one congressional chamber. They couldn’t repeal Obamacare or enact the Ryan Budget, but they could refuse to fund the Obama Era welfare state, which meant threatening a government shutdown or a debt default. Obamacare was the natural target for this strategic brinkmanship since it polled worse than, say, Medicare or food stamps.
2) Resisting a new entitlement is easier and more effective than rolling back an established entitlement. For all the conservative talk about the hatred Americans feel for Obamacare, there is a widespread fear on the Right that once the law is in place for a few years, it will become part of the landscape, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or the Rx drug prescription before them. And this fear coincides with the “tipping point” argument that the Welfare State is now ensnaring so many Americans that “takers” are outnumbering “makers,” and will defend their theft of “maker” resources fiercely at the polls.
3) In divided government, implacable unity is the winning formula. There is an intense belief among conservatives that Republican back-stabbing–RINOism!–and tactical surrender to liberals explains every defeat for the Right going back for decades. Add in the inevitable “war of nerves” that characterizes politics in an era of divided government, and the conviction that red-state Democrats will side with Republicans if pushed to the wall, and you have an argument against compromise of any sort, at any price.
You can see how these three factors reinforce each other in Ted Cruz’s basic “defund Obamacare” rap as expressed back in August in an interview with the Daily Caller:
The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, the most important check we have on an overreaching executive. Now is the best chance we have to exercise this power in order to defund Obamacare. It can be done as part of passing the Continuing Resolution (CR) — a piece of legislation that funds the government and must be renewed by September 30th.
The Continuing Resolution gives us real leverage to defund Obamacare. Fighting this fight won’t be easy, but it’s now or never. President Obama’s strategy is simple: on January 1, the subsidies kick in. President Obama wants to get as many Americans addicted to the subsidies because he knows that in modern times, no major entitlement has ever been implemented and then unwound. That’s why the administration announced that it won’t enforce eligibility requirements-essentially encouraging fraud and “liar loans”-because that way the most people possible will get addicted to the sugar.
To stop that from happening, the House should pass a new Continuing Resolution to fund the entire federal government except Obamacare. The House should include a rider in that bill that explicitly prohibits any federal dollars – discretionary and mandatory – from being spent on it. Republicans control the House, and have already voted some 40 times to repeal Obamacare, so if we stand together, we can do this.
Then the bill comes to the Senate. Republicans need just 41 votes to prevent Democrats from passing legislation that funds Obamacare – 45 Republicans in the Senate have already voted to repeal Obamacare, so if we stand together, we can do this also.
At that point, we simply have to continue to stand together and not blink. If Republicans are truly against Obamacare, they will not vote to fund it.
Cruz obviously miscalculated that Senate Republicans would block any vote on a continuing resolution that “funded Obamacare,” but his argument still stands that the side that doesn’t “blink” will ultimately win; that it’s now or never for killing Obamacare; and that exploiting the House veto power over spending and debt limit increases is the one point of leverage that Obama’s re-election did not eliminate.
So Cruz’s revolt, into which John Boehner and the House Republican Caucus have been dragged because they can’t pass any bill opposed by Democrats without the support of conservatives who agree with his approach, wasn’t some adolescent outburst that will pass like a moment of hormonal rage, but a consistent strategy for using limited leverage on behalf on an extremist agenda. If it’s “insane,” the insanity is not temporary, and won’t just go away.