The Art of the Impossible

by Andrew C. McCarthy
The strategy to repeal Obamacare by winning serial elections is not even a Hail Mary pass.

In considering the Republican retreat that ended the partial government shutdown, funded Obamacare, and unconditionally extended more credit on Uncle Sam’s tapped-out credit card, my friend Jonah Goldberg argues that we should be more understanding of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s predicament. Politics, Jonah aptly observes, is the art of the possible, and McConnell had “no good options” when he led the GOP cave-in to all of President Obama’s demands — a decision that, McConnell insists, was not in any way influenced by the tidy $3 billion earmark thrown in for one of his pet Kentucky boondoggles.

I agree that we must be realistic about what was achievable in the Obamacare battle. What I don’t get, though, is why our sympathetic cast of mind must be from the GOP-establishment perspective alone. Aren’t we also obliged to be realistic about the options available to the Republicans who took seriously their campaign promises to do everything within their power — which includes their constitutional power of the purse — to stop Obamacare?

Virtually all congressional Republicans elected or reelected since 2010 ran on that promise. Stopping Obamacare is the cause that most animated the conservative base, without which there would be no Republican majority in the House. If Republicans expected to maintain that support, they had to act on that commitment.

Beyond promises, something also had to be done because Obamacare is a disaster for the productive part of the country. And, more urgently, that something had to be done now. This was not a manufactured crisis. Obamacare was set to commence on October 1. Consequently, Republicans had two options. Option One was the GOP establishment’s “win elections, then repeal” strategy: Do nothing for now; allow Obamacare to be implemented; assume its unpopularity would increase, creating a climate for extended, uninterrupted GOP electoral success, finally leading to a Republican Congress of such substantial majorities that an Obamacare repeal would pass both houses and be signed by a Republican president. As we shall see, core assumptions of “win elections, then repeal” require the suspension of disbelief.

Alternatively, there was Option Two: Because, as a matter of law, Obamacare could not proceed unless both congressional chambers agreed to fund it, and because Republicans control the House, House Republicans could deny it funding. The hope was that Obamacare’s unpopularity and patent unreadiness, coupled with the Democrats’ desire for the rest of government to be funded at today’s exorbitant levels, would pressure the Senate and the president to agree to a delay. Option Two would be tough to pull off, but it was not exclusive of Option One; and, contrary to conventional wisdom, there was the chance that the memory of any government shutdown would fade quickly while raising public consciousness about Obamacare’s downsides would have enduring electoral benefits.

Republicans tried Option Two and lost, at least for now. It is only natural, I suppose, that defeat brings myopic focus on the strategy that has been defeated. Thus, it is fair enough, in the post mortem, to emphasize how uphill a battle the defund/delay strategy faced. Nevertheless, since the point is to be realistic about what all the alternatives were, we must account for what GOP-establishment sympathizers keep glossing over: The utter implausibility of their preferred option.

It is repeatedly said that the crusade to defund Obamacare was delusional, that it never had a chance. That is an overstatement. Hail Mary passes are tried because they occasionally work. A lot of things have to go right, and the success rate is low. But a Hail Mary is a ray of hope when the clock nears zero, when something has to be done, and when you are out of better options.

So, were we out of better options? I think so. To my mind, if the defund plan was delusional, the GOP establishment’s “repeal Obamacare by winning elections” alternative is delusional squared.

Inertia is a powerful non-motivator. It is always extremely tempting to avoid the hard thing that must be done now by rationalizing that we’ll have both the capability and the stomach to do hard things at some indeterminate future time. That is the main appeal of the GOP-establishment strategy: It is outlandish, but unlike defund/delay, it is hard to disprove in the present because its impossible assumptions are conveniently imagined to occur several years from now, in a brighter and shinier future.

To buy it, you first have to believe that the GOP is suddenly going to become an electoral juggernaut. Mind you, we are talking about Republicans who have won the popular vote in a presidential election only once since 1988; who are rapidly losing the confidence of the conservative base that gave the GOP the historic midterm victory in 2010; and whose current priorities include a mass legalization of (Democrat-leaning) illegal immigrants that would make it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win elections in the future. We are to believe, moreover, that this electoral juggernaut is poised to take off in the cycle right after the GOP lost to Obama and lost congressional seats despite high unemployment and no economic growth.

To repeal Obamacare on the establishment plan, the GOP needs sudden and sustained electoral success — despite the high hurdle of media bias. At least two federal election cycles, and more likely three or more (i.e., at least four years, and probably six or more), will be necessary. Obama, after all, will still be president for three more years and will never sign a repeal bill. Even if a Republican wins the White House in 2016, and even if Republicans by then have held the House and won the Senate, the GOP will not have overwhelming congressional majorities.

Furthermore, unlike Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats are unified and disciplined. Knowing the press is the wind at their backs, they are disposed to use every parliamentary privilege available to a minority to obstruct a repeal of Obamacare. Remember, Democrats unilaterally enacted Obamacare at a time when it was very unpopular and seemed likely to cost them dearly at the ballot box. But they are influenced by movement progressives to a far greater degree than the Tea Party influences Republicans. So important was socialized medicine to the Left that Democrats rammed Obamacare through, regardless of the likely electoral consequences. They are going to fight repeal to the death.

These obstacles alone are enough to make “uphill” an understatement. But that’s not the half of it. To buy the GOP establishment’s “repeal by winning elections” alternative, you also have to believe that Republicans are going to repeal a vast entitlement that has, by then, been on the books, with millions of Americans drawing subsidies, for at least four, and more likely six or more, years.

Remember, Republicans are the guys who gave us a new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement when Medicare was already tens of trillions of dollars in debt. They are the guys who ran in 2012 as the saviors of Medicare — even though they well knew that slamming Obama over taking money out of Medicare would make it much more difficult to address Medicare’s unsustainable costs in the future. They are the guys who accept core premises of Obamacare: Republicans do not make the case that health care is like any other commodity in a free market rather than a corporate asset to be centrally managed. The disagreement between statist Democrats and the GOP establishment is about the degree of government intrusion in health care, not the matter of government intrusion in principle. Republicans are also the guys who want to keep some of Obamacare’s core, anti-free-market elements — e.g., provisions that forbid denial of coverage owing to preexisting conditions and that keep “children” on their parents’ coverage until age 26.

The Democrats, the media, and all the Left will tirelessly portray any proposed repeal of Obamacare as a callous denial — a removal — of coverage from millions of underprivileged Americans, including those struggling with sickness. Moderates and “compassionate conservatives” already lecture us about the need to get real and make our peace with the welfare state; what will they be saying four or six or eight or who knows how many years from now? They will be arguing that Obamacare’s prodigious infrastructure is now part of our social fabric — that repealing it at this point (whenever that point happens) would be radical, the very antithesis of the Burkean conservative disposition. The GOP’s will to fight for repeal — which has never been as strong on action as it is on election-season rhetoric — will dissipate.

I said a few times prior to last summer that I did not believe the Supreme Court would invalidate Obamacare and that Republicans were making a big mistake putting all their hope in the prospect of a judicial repeal. Far greater emphasis should have been put on the need for a political repeal — including nominating a presidential candidate who was in a better position than the architect of Romneycare to make Obamacare a huge 2012 campaign issue. Pessimistic as I was, however, I had far greater confidence in the Supreme Court than I do in the prospect of Republicans repealing Obamacare once it has been up and running for a few years.

I believe there is no chance that will happen. I also believe the Republican establishment, in its heart of hearts, realizes how implausible this prospect is. A few times over the last two weeks — though not nearly as often as it should have happened — Republicans taking pot shots at Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and House conservatives were asked what their alternative plan was to stop Obamacare. The usual response was to shuffle feet and mumble about winning elections. It was a meek comeback because even these seasoned politicians were embarrassed to promise a bold repeal in, oh, 2017, 2019 . . . 

If you accept, as I do, that something had to be done before October 1, the question is not whether defund/delay was a promising strategy. It is whether it was the most promising — however unlikely — of the available alternatives.

As I have argued before, I think defund/delay had a chance precisely because it was not repeal. The president was not being asked to erase what he sees as his signature achievement. Obamacare would have remained law. But it is a law that was already delayed a few years by design, so pushing for a delay for another year or two was hardly a pie-in-the-sky demand.

Significantly, Democrats were being asked to delay Obamacare under circumstances in which the program is undeniably not ready for implementation. The president could have been made to see that he could look reasonable by delaying and simultaneously mitigate what has been a disastrous rollout — “excruciatingly embarrassing,” as even Robert Gibbs put it.

Democrats were being asked to defund or delay Obamacare under circumstances in which Obama himself had already defunded and delayed major portions of it. The president could have been made to see that he was just being asked to do for everyone what he had already done for corporations, cronies, and Congress.

Contrary to what you’d believe from reading press accounts over the last two weeks, Obama has a history of reversing himself — to take just a few examples: on closing Guantanamo Bay, on a civilian trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, on the Bush tax cuts, even on the near-term desirability of single-payer health insurance. It was never delusional to believe Obama and congressional Democrats could be persuaded that political expedience counseled what Obama has famously called “flexibility.” But you could not get there absent intense political pressure.

To create the pressure necessary to give defund/delay a Hail Mary’s chance to work, Republicans had to demonstrate that they were so fearful of Obamacare’s harmful effects on the country that they were firmly resolved not to fund it. If this ended up meaning the government got (very partially) shut down, they had to tee that up in a way that could persuade the public that it was Obama, not the Republicans, who was forcing the shutdown. That could be done only by agreeing to fund all the rest of the government, and sticking together on the single, clear message that Obama could reopen the government anytime he wanted by signing the funding bills the GOP had willingly given him.

Could Democrats have been made fearful that the public would hold Obama responsible for keeping the government shut down solely over Obamacare in spite of the law’s unreadiness and unpopularity? It was a long shot in which three things had to go right: (a) The public had to see that the government shutdown was not as painful in reality as the media had predicted it would be; (b) Obamacare’s deleterious consequences had to begin to emerge such that they were seen as a bigger problem than the shutdown; and (c) the Republicans had to stay united — they had to keep pounding these themes with unwavering conviction.

In the event, things could not have gone better, in the Hail Mary sense, on the first two elements. The shutdown, in which four-fifths of the government continued running, did not have an impact on most Americans — and Obama’s obnoxious contrivances to make the shutdown seem painful only underscored that, in reality, it wasn’t so bad. The Obamacare rollout turned out to be worse than Republicans could have imagined — when not reporting on the system’s massive technological failures, and the tiny number of “exchange” applicants, the press was forced to report on sticker-shock as Americans finally grappled with eye-popping, family-budget-breaking price hikes for coverage.

But then there’s that third element. If Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and House conservatives can justly be accused of being delusional, it is in adopting a strategy that banked on Republican unanimity in the face of withering opposition. It never happened; the intramural squabble started even before the shutdown.

Democrats could have pulled this strategy off. Indeed, their media-annealed steel is why we have Obamacare in the first place. But not Republicans. Today’s Republican establishment is the George W. Bush “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move” GOP — with all that portends, as Jonah expertly itemized in this 2004 G-File (i.e., before the GOP Congress and White House larded a few trillion dollars more onto the national debt).

Republicans do not have a unified position on Obamacare, on “entitlements,” or on the relationship between the citizen and the central government. Yes, it is an exaggeration to say there is no meaningful difference between the GOP establishment and Barack Obama — although I do not believe there is much difference between, say, John McCain and Hillary Clinton. But it is not an exaggeration to say the GOP establishment is more sympathetic to Obama’s case for the centralized welfare state than to the Tea Party’s case for limited government and individual liberty. And it is not an exaggeration to say that Beltway Republicans are more worried about what the media will say about them today than what the Tea Party may do to them every other year.

That is why the GOP establishment’s proclaimed strategy to repeal Obamacare by winning serial elections is not even a Hail Mary pass. It is politics as the art of the impossible.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.