Summer 2013: Defund vs. Delay
We speak now of defund/delay as one strategy, but in the spring a group, separate from the broad Repeal Coalition, had formed, and in July, on the same day the mandate bills passed the House, nine senators, led by Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, along with outside groups, met to discuss strategy. This group consisted mostly of grassroots organizations that for the most part had previously focused not on legislative strategies to repeal, reverse, or otherwise block Obamacare but concentrated instead on broad mobilization. They decided that their strategy would be to demand the full defunding of Obamacare, as first stated in a letter from Senator Mike Lee that pledged full defunding, not just as an opening gambit, but as the final requirement.
Rather than having a discussion about the pros and cons of this approach, participants in the Repeal Coalition were presented with a fait accompli and told this was what the conservative strategy would be. It’s not that people disagreed with the sentiment; all Republicans and conservatives wished to defund Obamacare, but no one believed the president would agree to defund his signature legislation. After all, he’d been willing to sacrifice control of the House to see it passed.
No amount of evidence succeeded in persuading the full-defund advocates to shift to the more winnable “delay” approach, even though polls showed it was consistently more appealing to the public. The “delay” or “time out” proponents pointed out that their approach would yield roughly the same policy outcome as “defund” was likely to, and reframing the argument might at least win some Democratic votes while convincing Americans that the GOP was seeking common-sense solutions. Stopping all or part of Obamacare (for at least one year), the delay proponents argued, was more achievable than the quixotic goal of full defunding. But the defund camp continued to believe that theirs was the more compelling message, and they explicitly refused as well to plan for what might happen after shutdown. Any discussion of a Plan B or considerations of how we could come out of this with a win, even though several leaders of the defund groups admitted that President Obama would never agree to defunding the law, earned the label “surrender caucus.”
Aggravating the growing rift, many became convinced, rightly or wrongly, that some in the defund camp had a different goal from the rest of the Repeal Coalition, and it wasn’t about impeding Obamacare — defund, delay, or otherwise.
The question for most in the Repeal Coalition was: Can we get something out of this continuing-resolution negotiation that advances the ball on impeding Obamacare, preserves the sequester cuts, and leaves conservatives with a “win” and in a stronger position for 2014? The goal was to ultimately delay/defund at least key parts of Obamacare through 2013 (which would give us a better chance of delaying it again in 2014 and would thus slow the start of the entitlement). Focusing on delay rather than defunding would also have put pressure on Democrats, because any successful strategy needed at least some Democratic votes to get through the Senate. Repeal Coalition participants believed that doing this the right way would educate the American public, refocus attention on the issue, advance the ball on impeding ACA, and improve our position to win Capitol Hill majorities in 2014 and 2016, which is necessary to achieve ultimate repeal.
For many in the defund-only camp, however, the flatly stated goal was to shut down the government and stand united until Reid and Obama capitulated. Indeed, the leaders of the defund effort were telling their members that defunding was possible, if only leadership stood its ground.
Why did this “hang-tough” way of articulating the goal matter? It is premised on the notion that Republicans could shut the government indefinitely and that this would eventually bring Reid and Obama to the table. Since the groups had no plan for pressuring Democrats — which is where the pressure on Reid and Obama would have to come from — and since, predictably, Republicans’ popularity would suffer even more than Obama and Reid’s, there was no foreseeable way to produce the desired outcome. Ultimately, this strategy set leadership up for failure.
That led many to conclude that this effort — at least for some of the key defund proponents — wasn’t really about impeding Obamacare at all, but was a set-up to discredit leadership and further frustrate the base. This concern was amplified by the hundreds of thousands of dollars these groups spent attacking conservative Republicans over the summer; the fact that no vulnerable Democrats were targeted; the dramatic shift of the messaging such that Republicans rather than Democrats would “own” Obamacare, with the “you fund it, you own it” line; the creation of an expectation in the base that the defunders knew could not be met; and the fundraising bonanza that followed. (Fundraising from conservatives, to attack Republicans for being too soft, is reportedly more remunerative than attacking Obama or Democrats for being too liberal.)
We should note, though, that the vast majority of the groups that subscribed to the defund approach had no venal motives whatsoever; nor did the grassroots participants who followed them. Those in the defund camp were extremely frustrated with the political terrain and believed that large demands, high principles, and unshakable resolve were required.
Most of the participants in the Repeal Coalition shared this frustration but believed success required an education campaign about ACA over the summer. (That didn’t happen.) They further argued that any shutdown strategy should have plans in place for funding the other parts of the government — as well as a series of offers to resolve the dispute — in order to maintain public support. To that end, and as an alternative to the full-defund approach, the Repeal Coalition put together a letter that more than 40 groups signed, listing the key mandates, subsidies, and taxes we sought to delay — in the event that a full defund or full delay proved impossible, as vote-counters could easily predict.
After the August announcement that Congress and its staff would be afforded special treatment under Obamacare, the strategy grew to encompass one more piece. If Obama and Reid behaved as expected (i.e., not negotiating at all), then the last GOP offer would include only the clean CR and the language proposed by Senator David Vitter to take away this special exemption. This would have been quite meaningful in the long game of getting delay, garnering huge leverage for future negotiations, and it would have been almost impossible for Democrats or Republicans to justify voting against.
For many going into the continuing-resolution fight, the plan was to bank the sequester levels in the clean continuing resolution and then negotiate for more in the debt-ceiling debate. There was even agreement among many Republicans that they would trade some of the sequester cuts for a delay in the individual mandate, which would have been a net plus.
Unfortunately, even though all Republicans and conservative groups came together to support defunding as an initial offer, the Senate rejected that and the subsequent offers (first defund, then delay, then an individual-mandate delay plus Vitter), as had been predicted. The Senate was about to produce a joint agreement on the debt limit and the continuing resolution that would have been politically almost impossible to vote against, given the public’s views on the prospect of default. Yet the House nonetheless attempted a last offer, which was the effectively agreed-to continuing resolution and debt limit, plus the Vitter language. This last offer died stillborn, as the Pitts bill had died months before. Heritage Action and Freedom Works decided it wasn’t a big enough win, and that the Vitter proposal didn’t matter, and they “key voted” against it — lowering the conservative “scores” of Republicans who voted for the joint agreement. Ultimately, the Reid–McConnell bill passed, and conservatives got the same sequester we started with while getting nothing that advanced the cause of repealing Obamacare and giving away a debt-ceiling hike for free.