Commentary Magazine


Have Conservatives Rescued Obama?

After a year of a stagnant economy, scandals, legislative failure, declining public approval, worries about the ObamaCare rollout, and the Syria fiasco, the Obama presidency appears to be on life support. The crackup of the coalition that elected and reelected him is no secret. The liberal media is no longer slavishly applauding his every move with Maureen Dowd, the New York Times’s queen of snark, noting today that the president has “lost the room” when it comes to connecting with his base. Even worse, in a key indicator of whether the president has crossed the boundary into lame-duck status, rank-and-file congressional Democrats are routinely defying him on all sorts of issues. With no chance of passing anything on his agenda this fall and having demonstrated conclusively with Syria that he is unable to deal with foreign crises, it should be a long, cold winter at the White House rendered even more bleak by the knowledge that what will follow in the 2014 midterms will likely make his final two years in office an even bigger nightmare.

But this accounting of his problems could be offset by one clear asset: an irrational opposition. As bad as things look for Obama, the president’s ace in the hole remains a Republican Party that seems intent on shooting themselves in the foot and thus rescuing an otherwise lost presidency. That’s why the embattled and often clueless inhabitants of the West Wing are feeling a bit more chipper today with the news that the House Republican leadership has bowed to the desires of its members and will present a measure for a vote on Friday to keep the government afloat that will eliminate funding for ObamaCare. But in doing so, with the certain knowledge that such a bill would be dead on the arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate and that the president will never agree to the spiking of his signature health-care legislation, Republicans are setting in motion a train of events that will trigger a government shutdown.

Having played chicken several times with the House GOP leadership on the budget and the debt ceiling in the hope that they would do just this, it appears that the president is finally getting his wish. And that is the one thing that could rescue an otherwise dead-in-the-water presidency.

As our John Podhoretz wrote in today’s New York Post, the president lacks a policy to defend but Republicans lack a strategy as they mindlessly pursue a confrontation with the White House without the slightest idea of how they can prevail. The irony is that while the administration seems hopelessly lost on every front, Obama’s opponents are so insecure about their ability to pursue a long-term strategy of winning back the Senate next year and the presidency two years after that, that much of their base now is only focused on having their representatives and senators demonstrating their willingness to fight Obama and ObamaCare even though doing so in this manner is likely to result in a major shot in the arm for the object of their hostility.

The arguments for the shutdown are not entirely irrational. Conservatives preaching that this confrontation must be the litmus test for Republican integrity are right when they say ObamaCare is deeply unpopular and a disaster in the making that will damage the economy once its full effect is felt. They also say, not without justice, that responsibility for the shutdown should fall equally on the president for not blinking on ObamaCare.

But Obama and the Democrats understand that as much as the public dislikes and fears ObamaCare they are even unhappier about anything that would shut down the government. Republicans are right when they say it isn’t fair that the blame for a shutdown will fall primarily on them and not equally on Obama for not blinking on ObamaCare. As John also aptly notes, it is shameful that President Obama has no compunction about surrendering to Vladimir Putin even though he has stated that ousting the Syrian regime is a matter of life and death, but would rather die himself than negotiate in good faith and give an inch to the Republicans on ObamaCare.

But who told the GOP that life was fair? The fact is, so long as Republicans are the ones demonstrating dislike of government and a desire to stop by other means a bill that they have never been able to muster the votes in both bodies to repeal, it is inevitable that the liberal media will rally to Obama’s side on this issue and that a critical mass of public opinion will follow suit and assign more blame to the GOP for a damaging standoff than the president.

This will give an otherwise crippled presidency a new lease on life. Rather than being forced to deal with an anemic economy and be held accountable for the devastating impact ObamaCare will have on the nation’s fiscal health in the next year, a shutdown will provide a useful distraction for the White House. Moreover, since it is almost certain that congressional Republicans will be the first ones to blink—as they have more to lose from the confrontation—the drama will also allow the president to look like a winner. All this will enable him to spend the next year campaigning—something he prefers to governing—against the GOP and blaming it for everything that ails the country.

That Republicans appear to be on the verge of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory at this moment will be considered nothing less than astonishing to future generations. But it will come as no surprise to anyone that follows what passes for reasoned debate in conservative circles these days. For much of the right, the only thing that counts is demonstrating resistance to Obama in every possible way. Rather than sensing the president’s weakness and coolly picking their fights in order to gain ground on entitlement and tax reform—two key points on which Republicans are the party of ideas and the Democrats the defenders of a crumbling status quo—conservatives see only their own helplessness as ObamaCare is rolled out. Rather than intelligently choosing a battle on their own ground that can be won, they prefer a dramatic cavalry charge that will be nothing less than a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand.

Perhaps it is understandable that so many conservatives feel this way after two demoralizing presidential election defeats at the hands of a man they rightly feel is manifestly unqualified to preside over the nation’s fortunes. But rather than taking heart from how recent events have proven them right, instead many on the right are descending even deeper into the pit of despair and succumbing to the kind of conspiracy theory mania in which no rational argument can win. If you see Barack Obama as the moral equivalent of al-Qaeda it isn’t a stretch to see Republicans that are, in the eyes of some, insufficiently angry with the president as similarly traitorous. It is this dynamic that has fueled the suicide caucus’s drive to push for a shutdown confrontation.

Thus, after weeks of failure capped by Obama’s tone-deaf response to the Washington shooting, the Obama presidency is about to get a new lease on life just at the moment that it was about to fade into irrelevance. I’ve little doubt that many on the right will blame Obama’s recovery on a weak Republican leadership rather than examine their own mistakes. But if anyone in the GOP wishes to stop this march of folly, now would be a good time to pull the emergency brake on a decision that Democrats are praying for.

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