October 2013: Opportunities Lost
If one presumes there was no alternative to pushing for “defund,” except waiting for 2016, it makes sense to contend that no opportunities were lost. But, in fact, we did have an alternative, and we lost five big opportunities. This is not to say that Republicans might not benefit from having taken a strong stand, particularly if Obamacare’s implementation remains a fiasco. And it is possible that the GOP’s plummeting poll numbers are only a temporary phenomenon. But whatever one thinks of the shutdown, we lost ground in these five areas:
Education: Yes, the defund strategy gave us some teachable moments and made people aware, particularly if they listened to Senator Cruz’s oration, of the harms of Obamacare and the Republican opposition to those harms. This is all to the good, and many of us are grateful for it. But imagine how much greater our impact would have been if we’d started not with the defund argument that polled poorly even among conservatives, but with the need to protect people from higher costs, tax increases, job losses, privacy risks, and losing the insurance they had been told they could keep — but now can’t.
Encouraging Leadership: Despite all the predictions that the House leadership would never, ever have the spine to go to shutdown, they did! And they stuck with it! And they gave us the clean defund vote! Then they gave us a clean delay package! And they gave us a proposal for an individual-mandate delay, with Vitter! And when conservatives said, “We need to move fast, the Senate is rushing a deal,” they did! The House held emergency meetings, several times, and tried very hard to bring everyone together and get enough votes to get something better and beat what was about to come out of the Senate. And having done everything the defund wing wanted, in the face of an apoplectic Representative Peter King (N.Y.) et al. and huge pressure from many of their donors, House leaders received scant praise. Instead, they were swatted on the nose with a “Bad Dog!” key-vote admonition, even though that deal would have been far better than what they were forced to swallow in the end. From the standpoint of human relations, and considering how to build trust for future negotiations, this demand that the perfect be the enemy of the good, this ingratitude and obliviousness to how far the Republican House leadership moved in the direction of the grassroots conservatives, constitutes a huge opportunity lost.
Ending the Congressional Exemption: There had been no previous clean vote on the Vitter amendment, and there wasn’t one this time, so it will be easy for Democrats to deny the lengths they went to in order to protect carve-outs for Congress. This was conservatives’ first shot at getting an effectively clean vote on the Vitter proposal. The GOP could have branded itself as the party that cares about the rule of law and genuine fairness; if the Vitter proposal had been voted down, we could have used that against Reid and cast the presidency in an imperial light.
The Vitter Leverage: There is a reason Reid and Obama have desperately fought to keep the Vitter amendment from going to the floor for a vote: They understood that if Vitter passed, Democratic members and staff would have the same experience of Obamacare as the general public — and they’d share the same concerns. This would increase the appeal of delay.
If Vitter becomes law, tagging along with the American people becomes the only way Pelosi & Co. get to keep their own existing health care. That’s a huge incentive, even bigger than getting out of town for vacation. Remember that Democrats have far more senior female staff than Republicans do, and those female staffers don’t just hate the cost (which is how men tend to evaluate health insurance), they also worry about the lower quality of care they might get through the exchanges. If Vitter had passed, Republicans would have had a huge personal financial and quality-of-life incentive to use as a negotiating chip, influencing the two constituencies that matter most to members: spouses and staff.
A Win: Had Vitter passed, most conservatives and Republicans could have claimed a victory, a seemingly small but strategic one, and felt rewarded for the weeks of shutdown. And maybe, just maybe, the GOP leadership would have been encouraged to be tougher negotiators in the future. Victories beget victories, success encourages success, and feeling optimistic is a whole lot better than being discouraged, disenchanted, or disgusted.
What’s done is done. The question now is how, from a minority position, to go forward effectively, expand the number of people who share our view, and, as Reagan would have advised, keep taking slices of the loaf, then going back for more. This fight is not going away, and no participant in the Repeal Coalition intends to hang it up and give up after January 1, even if some have alleged that by then, it will be “over.”
Where to start? Ditch the recriminations. They accomplish nothing. Start with a little gratitude for whatever people sincerely did to advance the cause. Thank the grass roots for caring about what the Constitution actually says and putting so much effort into ensuring that the issue was front and center in the minds of Republicans going into this fight. Thank the leadership for doing all those things we were assured they wouldn’t do. Thank Ted Cruz for his heroic 21 hours on the Senate floor. Thank Senators Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) for years of articulate service in the cause of repeal. Thank Senator Vitter and Representative Ron DeSantis (Fla.) for their bill that demands fairness. Thank the many groups that supported a delay strategy for the hours of careful analysis they have put into making the case and devising strategies to impede Obamacare and pave the way to repeal.
Refocus on our shared objective, and dedicate ourselves to thoughtful, strategic planning so that together we will make real progress in the months and years ahead.
Most important, let us come together. For surely we cannot do this alone, and the fight is long, but the cause, and our fellow citizens, are worth it.
— Heather Higgins is president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice, which runs the Repeal Coalition. The Repeal Coalition now has more than 200 participants, drawn both from a wide range of outside organizations and from inside the House and Senate.