Commentary Magazine


Republican Threat to Shut Down the Government Is a Terrible Idea

There’s an increasingly contentious debate within the GOP over whether Republicans should oppose any bill to fund the government or increase the debt limit that also provides money for the Affordable Care Act. The basic argument of people like Senator Mike Lee is that in return for Republican support for funding government operations, Democrats will defund the ACA. If Democrats refuse, no money will be forthcoming. And as a result, the government will shut down–and Democrats will be blamed for having done so. After all, they chose funding ObamaCare over keeping the rest of the federal government running. QED. 

This approach is so obviously the correct one, some on the right insist that those Republicans who oppose it must never have been serious about repealing ObamaCare in the first place. Added Senator Ted Cruz, “What I can tell you is there are a lot of Republicans in Washington who are scared. They’re scared of being beaten up politically.” But not the gallant and intrepid senator from Texas.  

The assertion that Republicans don’t want to succeed and were never serious about repealing the Affordable Care Act is simply wrong. We all agree on the end; where there’s disagreement is on the means to the end. Critics of the Lee gambit believe it would fail–and in the process it would set back the conservative cause, may revive the Obama presidency, and damage Republicans in the 2014 election.

As for the reason some of us believe it would fail, let’s start with the most obvious points first: No one believes Barack Obama will under any circumstance sign legislation that would defund his signature achievement. Which means that a government shutdown would be in the cards. And that doesn’t bode well for the GOP, since any party in control of one branch of Congress will rarely win a showdown with a president of another party on a matter like this. There are intrinsic advantages the presidency has which Congress does not. (See the Gingrich-led House of Representative in the mid-1990s which, contrary to revisionist claims, never really recovered in the aftermath of its showdown with Bill Clinton.) Overcoming those advantages is possible, but doing so requires fighting on terrain that has been very carefully chosen. This terrain favors Mr. Obama.

For example, Jeffrey Anderson–one of the most knowledgeable and intelligent critics of the Affordable Care Act–calls attention to a new Kaiser Health Tracking poll that shows that Americans oppose ObamaCare by 5 points (40 to 35 percent) but also oppose defunding it by 27 points (58 to 31 percent). And that’s prior to a high-profile collision with the president. Anderson examines the findings of other surveys and writes “all of these polls suggest that an effort that is framed as defunding Obamacare is likely a political loser.” 

In a fight over defunding the Affordable Care Act, one can count on the press being highly one-sided in its coverage, with the instant narrative being that Republicans are anti-government, bordering on being nihilistic, obsessed with obstructionism, and responsible for the troops not getting paid. Republicans would try to chip away at it, but without much success. Bear in mind, too, that we’re in a nation that reelected Obama by a fairly comfortable margin, and he remains far more popular than Congress and the Republican Party. And Republicans would be entering a debate where the preexisting impressions–in this case, the GOP is highly critical of government and are not all that troubled by the prospect of a shutdown–works to their disadvantage.

Some on the right are understandably frustrated. They want to undo the damage of the Obama era, as do we all. But there is nothing conservative about acting as if we live in an alternate political universe, in a place where favorable new scenarios can be wished into existence. Nor is there anything conservative in insisting that Republicans get in a fight they are almost sure to lose–and that the loss itself will have damaging ramifications.

A prediction: If Senators Lee, Cruz, and Rand Paul had their way, a month or so afterward nearly everyone would look back at it as a mistake, and quite possibly as a disaster. Public support for their plan would never materialize, Republicans would be forced to retreat, and there would be recriminations all the way around, with those who advocated this idea coming up with excuses for why it failed (and was destined to fail). Fortunately, however, Lee & Co. won’t have their way. Cooler and wiser heads will prevail.   

Prudence is a higher political virtue than impatience and pugilistic impulses. Republicans would therefore be wise to act in ways that are measured, politically intelligent, realistic, and that avoid the traps set by its opponents. 

I’ve said before that Pickett’s Charge is a Civil War reference. There’s no reason for it to become a political blueprint for the GOP.

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