If politics is mainly a test of wills, then the task ahead for conservatives is to engineer a series of high-stakes, long-shot confrontations with President Obama and try to win them. That’s a recipe for disappointment: In modern America, for good or ill, presidents have built-in advantages over congressional party caucuses, not least because the latter are usually more cacophonous. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid did not set up such confrontations with President Bush after they took Congress in the 2006 elections. It was not because they were more civic-minded but because dramatic battles are not generally the way party caucuses frustrate presidents and advance their own policy objectives.
They are also a recipe for constant infighting. Conservative groups that have internalized the apocalyptic view of politics believe the most effective model for gaining ground is simply pressuring Republicans to be more confrontational. The first step of the defunding strategy was not to persuade most Republicans that it was a good idea; it was to force them to go along with it whether or not they agreed. So the defunders prevented the majority of House Republicans, who disagreed, from being able to follow a different approach, and threatened to run primary opponents against some of them. Then they began to insist that Republicans who remained critical were dishonorably breaking the party’s (coerced) unity. It turned out that the power to move the House Republican caucus is not the power to move the world. Again and again it has instead been the case that as House Republicans go, so go House Republicans.
While not working, this approach increases the amount of bad blood among allies. The elevation of tactics to the level of principle means that there will always be new turncoats to purge. In recent weeks, Senators Ron Johnson and Rand Paul, both previously tea-party favorites, have been denounced for not being sufficiently committed to defunding. Constantly generating new turncoats is not a sign of a workable strategy.
Senator Cruz himself — who is, for the record, a longtime friend of one of your authors — understands perfectly well that prudence places limits on statesmen, even if his rhetorical flights in this fight have sometimes ignored the point. Asked at a town hall a few months ago why we couldn’t impeach President Obama, he said that we didn’t have the votes. By his logic in the defunding fight, though, why should it have mattered? Leave aside, as the senator did, whether impeachment is desirable. If it is an important way to vindicate the Constitution, why not ram it through the House and see if making the case for it would flip enough red-state Democrats in the Senate to convict Obama? If opponents of defunding were “defeatist” for counting too few votes for it, wasn’t he a defeatist too? Scorn prudence and you can justify any course of action so long as you approve its ends.
For that matter, why didn’t the defunders ever call for a budget bill that would repeal Obamacare altogether? If, as we have sometimes heard them say, it is the most basic rule of politics to start with a maximalist position and then compromise — as opposed to “negotiating with yourself” — why didn’t they follow that rule? Presumably it is because they drew a prudential line of their own: They considered a shutdown fight over temporary defunding more winnable than a straight-up budget fight over full repeal.
None of this is to impugn the sincerity of those who pushed for defunding, or to blame them for their frustration. It’s not as if the Republican leadership handled this episode especially well. It set the stage for this fiasco. It advanced some clever tactics against Obamacare — such as diverting some propaganda funds to actually helping sick people — but never outlined, in public, an overall repeal strategy into which those tactics could fit. That failure bred distrust among conservatives, who torpedoed the leaders’ tactical plan in part because it looked like an alternative to repealing Obamacare rather than a means to it.
The defunders thus filled a vacuum — but filled it badly. And they did not supply what the leaders most woefully lacked. Neither group has promoted a free-market health-care plan of the kind that would have to be part of any plausible strategy to replace Obamacare.