Prior to the government shutdown, the House Republican leadership offered a plan to force the Senate to hold a symbolic vote on defunding Obamacare before allowing it to move on to a so-called clean continuing resolution — one, that is, with no anti-Obamacare provisions. The plan was denounced by various conservative groups as a sell-out and caused a revolt in the caucus. A few weeks and a government shutdown later, all Republicans had to show for their trouble was . . . a symbolic vote on defunding and a clean CR. They were back where they had started, only with lower poll numbers and more poisonous divisions.
If someone had missed the intervening weeks, he would have had no idea of the drama and political pain that had ensued before the party accepted a version of the initial unacceptable compromise. From one point of view, the entire episode was all rather pointless; from another it was quite important. It was the latest and most consequential expression of an apocalyptic conservative politics.
It is a politics of perpetual intra-Republican denunciation. It focuses its fire on other conservatives as much as on liberals. It takes more satisfaction in a complete loss on supposed principle than in a partial victory, let alone in the mere avoidance of worse outcomes. It has only one tactic — raise the stakes, hope to lower the boom — and treats any prudential disagreement with that tactic as a betrayal. Adherents of this brand of conservative politics are investing considerable time, energy, and money in it, locking themselves in unending intra-party battle.
The tendency arises from legitimate frustrations. The federal government seems constantly to expand even as — and sometimes because — it proves itself incompetent. Republicans have done precious little to reverse or even halt the trend. Obamacare is a disastrous and unpopular law; but if the Republican party has a strategy for bringing about its eventual end, it has been kept well-hidden.
So it is entirely reasonable to search for new ways to tame the welfare state rather than keep doing what has been done before. The Republican consultant class has often seemed to suffer from an almost clinical deficit of imagination. And the Republican party’s leadership could certainly use the occasional poke with a cattle prod. If the conservatives behind the defunding crusade now turn back to fighting the Senate’s immigration bill with the same passion and commitment, they will again be denounced by Democrats, the press, and some Republicans as a mindless wrecking crew. It shouldn’t stop them.
The key premise that has been guiding these conservatives, however, is mistaken. That premise is that the main reason conservatives have won so few elections and policy victories, especially recently, is a lack of ideological commitment and will among Republican politicians. A bigger problem than the insufficient conservatism of our leaders is the insufficient number of our followers. There aren’t enough conservative voters to elect enough officials to enact a conservative agenda in Washington, D.C. — or to sustain them in that project even if they were elected. The challenge, fundamentally, isn’t a redoubling of ideological commitment, but more success at persuasion and at winning elections.
The plan to defund Obamacare was an attempt to find a shortcut around this necessary work. For many reasons, it had strong appeal to conservatives. Many conservatives — although not the leaders of the defunding effort — were under the false impression that if the House refused to allocate funds for Obamacare, it could defund it. In truth, Obamacare’s funding keeps going unless both houses of Congress and the president (or two-thirds of both houses) agree to stop it. The defunders thus needed to win the assent of many congressional Democrats and President Obama. They were never going to get it, and have barely tried to explain why they thought otherwise.
The leading defunders thought that the shutdown would increase their leverage, but in the actual event it eroded that leverage a little bit every day. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and President Obama denounced the shutdown but always knew they could wait it out, watch Republicans’ poll numbers drop, and count on a capitulation at the end. They were right, and any student of the shutdowns of the 1990s would have expected as much.