I can already hear the shudders of dread from some of my brothers and sisters on the right as I write this piece. But write I must because I believe the course conservatives like Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz are charting for the GOP over the looming budget battle is one the party cannot win. Threatening a government shutdown over funding for Obamacare will not end well for the GOP for several reasons. I will list them below.
First, never has the GOP strategy of threatening the government worked. In 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich dared Clinton to steeply cut spending or walk over the cliff with him. Clinton called his bluff and let the government shutdown. The result was furor from the public over GOP intransigence and it likely helped fuel Clinton’s victory in 1996. More recently, in 2011 the GOP threatened to shut down the government unless steep spending cuts were undertaken. The result was the sequester but the public quickly soured on the newly GOP controlled House’s “terrorist tactics.” At a state level the GOP controlled Minnesota legislature tried the same tactic in early 2012 and they lost their control of the legislature in November of the same year.
Second, the public has yet to fully see the disaster that is Obamacare. Sure, they have been shown the majority of the goodies of the law. But they also have been hearing for the same period of time the problems with the law: triple the estimated legislative cost, skyrocketing premiums, heavy fines for the young who do not buy insurance, etc. The numbers for and against the law have not changed since 2011 even as those numbers favor the repeal side. Still, it is a stretch to say the public will risk a government shutdown to defund Obamacare. That is the kind of brinkmanship the public has grown tired of in DC.
Third, Republicans only control 1/3rd of the government. In 1995 when they faced off with Clinton they also had the Senate. This time they do not. The GOP should understand if they undertake this course fully they will be in for a full barrage of attacks from the bully pulpit of the President to the media/late night talk shows to Harry Reid and the Senate. Republicans can fight back but in the end they do not currently have the public’s favor and fighting against the ceaseless number of attacks that will come their way is a losing proposition.
Lastly, If Republicans are serious about taking this course they lose their best leverage against Obama and Democrats. Obama and his party will die before they defund Obamacare, heck they even oppose allowing people to work more than 29 hours under the law (something their own base hates in the law), so what are the odds they would accede to this GOP demand? Nil. And theoretically if they did the GOP likely would get nothing else out of the President on the budget. Most likely he would demand increase spending in other areas. So, the GOP wins a battle but loses the larger war over spending until 2016. Meanwhile, entitlements and the degradation of the family continue to create havoc in the country.
Of course Republicans do not have to fall into this trap. If they were smart they would use defunding Obamacare as a negotiating tactic to get the President to support entitlement reform or major cuts to domestic spending. Democrats and the President have already hinted they will go into the debate loaded for bear and daring the GOP to block him. With polls showing the President weak, Republicans just might feeling the public backs their positions if they appear moderate and willing to be pragmatic. Hence John Boehner’s toned down stance on raising extra revenue through tax reform if major structural changes are made to the tax code or entitlements.
The schedule of the budget debate remain muddled however largely due to the fact Congress has hightailed it out of DC for their August recess. When they return in September they will have a mere eight working days to come up with a compromise on the budget before the current Continuing Resolution fails and the government officially shuts down. This could mean the GOP and Democrats agree to a short-term agreement on spending for a few extra months right before the budget battle is fully joined. Or it could mean party leaders stay behind in DC and hammer out a compromise. Considering how much heat Boehner has taken from his right for leadership negotiating on behalf of its members this is an extremely unlikely scenario.
This could give the movement in the GOP to defund Obamacare at all costs more time to court members. But Boehner and McConnell may have an ace up their sleeve. If they can strike a deal with the President it is very, very likely Pelosi in the House and Reid in the Senate will get their liberal caucuses to endorse such a plan. This would mean, especially important in the House, that a budget could get through even if a majority or a strong minority of Republicans oppose the final package. One can expect at least one potential GOP Presidential contender in the Senate, Rubio, Cruz or Paul, to oppose a final budget package to court fiscal conservatives and economic libertarians.
Republicans would be foolish to stand and fight against all odds to defund Obamacare and risk a government shutdown. In the end they will lose badly, jeopardize their chance to retake the Senate in 2014 and most importantly wound some of their best and brightest party stars in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election. Pyrrhic victories sure do make the historians swoon but they often have disastrous consequences for those who attempt/win them.