It’s Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio against the world.
Over the past few weeks, Republicans of all stripes have deemed as reckless the trio’s push to threaten not to fund the government over Obamacare.
Senator Tom Coburn called it a “failed strategy for conservatives,” Representative Paul Ryan said it was “swinging for the fences,” and Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor have been gently working to stop the idea from gaining steam among House Republicans.
On Sunday, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a top ally of Cruz and Lee in the Senate, seemed to signal that even he was backing away from the idea, saying, “I don’t think shutting down the government is a good idea,” and plotting a more moderate course of ultimate compromise over delaying Obamacare.
“I gotta tell you, [defunding Obamacare] has been publicly described as stupid, dishonest, deceitful, crazy, and that’s just by the Republicans,” Cruz told a crowd at a town hall in Texas on Monday.
But none of that seems to matter to Cruz and Lee, who are both pushing ahead with the help of an insurgent coalition of activist groups including Heritage Action, the Madison Project, and Brent Bozell’s ForAmerica.
In an interview, Cruz expanded on his ideas, saying that his Republican opponents are “haunted by ghosts of shutdowns past” but that the conventional wisdom on the 1995 battle between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton is wrong.
“There was some political pain, to be sure. Bill Clinton took a two-by-four, using the bully pulpit of the presidency, to congressional Republicans. But I think it’s worth underscoring that the direct result of Republicans’ standing up and being willing to fight that fight is we saw year after year of balanced budgets come out of the federal government,” Cruz said.
“If Republicans hadn’t stood up in that shutdown fight, we would not have seen those balanced budgets. We would not have seen some of the most fiscally responsible policies Congress has ever produced. And so all of the Republicans that are scared of fighting that fight again . . . are failing to recognize the material benefits — policy benefits, the economic growth — that resulted because of making that stand,” he added.
In public, the debate is between those who mock the timid and spineless and those who say that Cruz and his allies are recklessly encouraging the demise of the GOP.
But behind the scenes, the debate is more nuanced. In principle, conservative critics of the plan aren’t against using leverage such as government-funding bills to secure policy victories, but they view the specific demand to defund Obamacare as a bridge too far. It’s such a big demand, the thinking goes, that average voters would inevitably side with President Obama in the event that government funding were halted.
Another argument is that, since Republicans are so deeply divided over the idea, the fractures are likely to prompt infighting that would reduce the GOP’s clout if they get in a showdown with Obama.
And if the episode were seen as a major loss for Republicans, it would hurt their momentum heading into the debt-ceiling fight that comes later in the fall.
The case in favor of threatening an Obamacare shutdown is also more nuanced than what is being said in public. Even some of the tactic’s most prominent adherents privately say they don’t expect the fight to come down to an actual government shutdown. Instead, they see it ending in some kind of small victory, such as a delay in the individual mandate, a scenario the Kentuckian Paul hinted at on Fox News Sunday.
Proponents of a shutdown also believe they are helping to stiffen the GOP’s spine on spending more broadly, by making the debate about defunding Obamacare rather than, say, about replacing the sequester’s spending cuts with tax increases.
And they say that Obamacare’s unpopularity puts them on firm ground politically.
“If President Obama and Harry Reid force a partial temporary government shutdown, I think there are three reasons the fight would be different [from the one in 1995],” Cruz said. “Number one, the issue is fundamentally different. The American people understand Obamacare isn’t working, it’s killing jobs, forcing people to be pushed into part-time work . . . that it’s the biggest job-killer in the country. President Obama has been forced to admit the failure of Obamacare when he unilaterally granted waivers to large corporations. On the merits, if he’s willing to grant waivers to large corporations, why is President Obama threatening to shut down the federal government in order to deny those very same waivers to hard-working American families?”
House leaders have all but officially ruled out the strategy, and in a conference call with rank-and-file members Thursday, Boehner may make his intentions explicit.
But Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is facing significant pressure on the issue back home. The Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC tied to former senator and now Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, is rattling its sabers against McConnell on Obamacare funding, giving insiders the distinct impression it is about to provide an influx of much-needed cash to McConnell’s Republican-primary challenger, Matt Bevin.
McConnell remains the last big wild card in the debate. If he felt compelled, for political expediency, to board the Cruz-Lee-Rubio train, it would put Boehner and Cantor in a political pickle and upend the debate.
Whatever course the Republicans take, look for conservatives to remind primary voters frequently about the eventual vote.
Drawing a parallel to the infamous Wall Street bailout law of 2008, Brian Phillips, Lee’s communications director, vows: “This is going to be the TARP of 2014.”
— Jonathan Strong and Katrina Trinko are reporters for NRO.