A long time ago (2011) in a galaxy far, far away (Washington, D.C.), South Carolina senator Jim DeMint voted for a continuing resolution that would fund the government, including Obamacare. Today, Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint says that any attempt to fund the government with a continuing resolution that would also fund Obamacare is an “old-guard . . . do-nothing strategy” that would represent a “failure of Republicans to show the courage of their convictions” and “further alienate the American people from their government.” That the 2013 DeMint thinks so poorly of the 2011 DeMint tells us a lot about why conservatives have achieved so little on health-care and entitlement reform.
If you’re a regular reader of National Review Online
, you know
that a faction of conservatives, led by Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, have been seeking to convince Republicans to threaten to shut down the government if the Democrats don’t agree to fully defund Obamacare. However, there’s a larger faction of conservatives who see this as a reckless and destructive strategy. After all, the chances that President Obama will agree to defund his signature achievement are zero, whereas the chances that the public would punish Republicans for shutting down the government are, shall we say, non-zero.
This hasn’t stopped Cruz from labeling those who disagree with him as defeatists — members of a “surrender caucus” — who lack the courage to fight Obamacare that, naturally, he has. Among the alleged RINO squishes are: Representative Paul Ryan, the leader of the entitlement-reform movement in Congress; Tom Coburn, his crusading counterpart in the Senate; and Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform is the closest thing to Ronald Reagan in institutional form.
The whole thing was absurd already. But last week, as Republican leaders in Congress unveiled a smart new plan to defund Obamacare, the absurdity reached new heights.
The original strategy of the shutdown shock-jocks was that the Republican-led House would pass a CR that would defund Obamacare. The Democrat-led Senate would pass its own CR that would fund Obamacare. The impasse would lead to a government shutdown, and the shutdown would be so scary to Democrats that they would eventually cave and agree to defund Obamacare.
There are a number of problems with this approach. Other than the obvious — that it would never work — it would allow the Senate Democrats to gut the Budget Control Act of 2011, a.k.a. the “sequester,” which has already achieved a remarkable amount of spending control and deficit reduction. As Stephen Moore noted in the Wall Street Journal last month, the sequester is “the first time federal expenditures have fallen for two consecutive years since the end of the Korean War.”
The plan to defund Obamacare proposed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last week gets around this problem. Under Cantor’s approach, the House would simultaneously fund the government, including Obamacare, at sequester levels while also passing a separate resolution that would amend the CR to defund Obamacare. By using this mechanism, the House would force the Senate to vote on the defunding resolution, while preserving the sequester-driven spending caps, and also ensuring that any government shutdown would be the fault of Democrats in the Senate.
Subsequently, during the debt-ceiling negotiations, House Republicans would trade a one-year delay in Obamacare — including its unpopular individual mandate — for a fiscally comparable easing of the sequester spending caps.
Basically, it’s a win-win. The Cantor plan would give conservatives an opportunity to persuade Senate Democrats to defund Obamacare and would require those Democrats to vote on defunding, whether they want to or not. If defunding fails in the Senate, the rest of the government remains funded, avoiding the shutdown that Cruz et al. claim they don’t seek and preserving the sequester’s caps on discretionary spending for future negotiations over Obamacare.
So what has been the reaction of shutdown supporters to the Cantor plan? I won’t keep you in suspense. According to Heritage Action, it’s a “legislative gimmick designed to provide political cover to those who are unwilling to fight to defund Obamacare. . . . It is our expectation that no conservative in Congress will try to deceive their constituents by going along with this cynical ploy.”
I’m not sure who died and made Heritage pope, but apparently Heritage Action thinks it has the authority to excommunicate Paul Ryan, Tom Coburn, Grover Norquist, and countless others from the conservative movement. And not because these skeptics disagree on the fact that Obamacare is bad law, but because they disagree about the parliamentary tactics with which one should oppose it.
So why is it that shutdown advocates are so adamant in supporting a futile and self-destructive plan to convince President Obama to defund his own health law? There’s a cynical theory, and a principled theory.
The cynical theory is that this is all about fundraising. David Weigel of Slate compiled a list of fundraising letters sent out by groups that support the shutdown strategy. “We need funds now to fully launch our grassroots battle plan to defund Obamacare,” says one. “Please consider donating $5, $25, $50, $100 or more to help defund Obamacare.”
“The Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action . . . have spent more money so far on attack ads this year against House and Senate Republicans than the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic National Committee, combined,” calculates Brian Walsh, a former staffer to Senator John Cornyn (R., Tex.), in U.S. News.
“All the while, virtually every Senate Democrat up for re-election in 2014 . . . has been given a free pass by these groups. . . . You see, money begets TV ads which begets even more money for these groups’ personal coffers. Pointing fingers and attacking Republicans is apparently a very profitable fundraising business.”
The principled theory, which I believe is the more accurate one, goes something like this: Desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s worth taking the political hit of a government shutdown now, because if we don’t, Obamacare will be permanent, and the war against big government will be lost forever.
In other words: The argument for shutting down the government over Obamacare is an explicitly defeatist one. It is that the endurance of Obamacare would represent a permanent, and irreversible, defeat for the cause of limited government.
And this is where the pro-shutdown forces go terribly wrong. The idea that we had a free-market health-care system before Obamacare, and a socialized one after, is completely and utterly incorrect. In 2010, before the passage of Obamacare, U.S.-government entities spent more per capita on health care than all but three other countries in the world. Obamacare adds to that spending by around 10 to 15 percent. Not good, to be sure, but not the whole kit and caboodle either.
Even if Obamacare can’t be reversed, it does not spell the doom of conservatism, any more than the passage of the Great Society in 1965 spelled the doom of conservatism, any more than the passage of the New Deal in the 1930s spelled the doom of conservatism, any more than the creation of the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Reserve in 1913 spelled the doom of conservatism.
But the good news is that Obamacare is not irreversible. All is not lost in the quest for a more free-market, fiscally responsible health-care system. I, among others, have pointed out that there are plenty of ways to advance a conservative health-care agenda, one that would reduce government health spending to pre-Obamacare levels, even if the “Affordable Care Act” never gets repealed.
To believe otherwise — to believe that the extinction of conservatism is upon us unless Obamacare is repealed within the next hundred days — is to be a true defeatist, a true member of the “surrender caucus.” For the rest of us, there remains plenty to fight for.
— Avik Roy is a columnist at NRO and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @avik.