Politics & Policy

Ron Johnson’s Rejected Plan

Since the defunders failed so spectacularly, it’s worth asking whether Johnson’s plan might have worked.

With the pressure of the government shutdown bearing down on the GOP, Senator Ted Cruz and his allies who were pushing to defund Obamacare often put the question to their critics: What’s your strategy? Radio host Mark Levin, for example, raked Senator Ron Johnson over the coals in an October 9 interview, demanding to hear what his approach was.

In response to Levin, the Wisconsin Republican alluded to confidential discussions about an alternative plan. Now that the fight is over, he has walked me through a strategy that he and a small House–Senate working group put together in July that never came to fruition.

When I visited Johnson in his office in the Hart Senate Office Building, he had a sheet of paper on his desk on which each step of the would-be plan was laid out. He allowed me to review the document but wouldn’t let me take a copy with me when I left.

Step One, according to the document: The House passes a six-month continuing resolution. Attached to the CR is a one-year delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate and a one-year delay of the employer mandate, which President Obama later unilaterally suspended; a bill from the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, James Lankford of Oklahoma, to keep the government from shutting down in the event the funding laws expire; a bill from Representative Tom McClintock of California to give top priority to debt payments in order to avoid default amid a stalemate over the debt ceiling; and, finally, the so-called “Vitter amendment,” proposed by Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, to end a federal subsidy to congressional lawmakers and staff for purchasing their health care on the Obamacare exchanges.

Johnson and others supporting the strategy pushed hard for action on the first step in July, before Congress had departed for its August recess, which would have allowed Republicans to spend the month at home beating the messaging war drum.

Step Two: Harry Reid rejects the plan and passes a CR without any of the attached policies.

Step Three: Coming back from the August recess, Republicans make what Johnson calls a “strategic retreat.” We’ve heard the Democrats, the GOP lawmakers would say: They won’t touch Obamacare, so we’re removing the demands to delay the individual and employer mandates. The Republicans would cast their position as trying to prevent a government shutdown, prevent default on the debt, and remove a special perk for Congress.

At that point the Republicans would hold firm, watching public opinion and hoping the Democrats would buckle, going along with what were relatively modest demands.

Had Obama and Reid capitulated at that point, Obamacare would still be the law of the land. But the small victories would have put Republicans in a better position going forward for the next showdown, whenever that might be.

The Lankford bill, for example, would have continued government spending at current levels in the absence of a funding law but slowly ratchet down spending levels as a trigger to force agreement — on the GOP’s terms. The McClintock bill would have taken the most calamitous consequence of the debt ceiling off the table, allowing it to be used as a forcing mechanism without a threat to the global economy.

The path instead chosen by Speaker John Boehner, after he was forced against his will into using the CR to wage a do-or-die fight over Obamacare, was attaching full defunding of the health-care law to the CR.

At that point in the debate, top House conservatives such as Tom Graves of Georgia and Jim Jordan of Ohio were pushing to frame the issue as a matter of delaying rather than defunding. But it’s unclear whether anything but defunding would have had the 218 GOP votes needed to pass on the House floor as an opening bid, given Cruz’s success at galvanizing the grassroots over the August recess.

In any event, the die was cast. Republicans were attempting to defund what Nancy Pelosi has called the “crown jewel” of Democratic domestic-policy achievements via a stopgap funding bill.

As Johnson sees it, waging the fight over what was essentially total repeal of the law “poisoned the well” throughout the shutdown, giving Obama and Reid the upper hand. “The president believed he was in such a strong political position that they could swat anything down, no matter how reasonable,” Johnson says. Which is what they did, resulting in a two-week shutdown and ultimate Republican capitulation.

Would the Johnson plan have worked? It’s impossible to say with certainty.

But imagining whether it would have worked prompts a discussion at the core of the debate: How could Republicans, controlling, as Boehner put it, only “one-half of one-third of the government,” extract concessions from President Obama via “must-pass” bills like the CR and the debt ceiling?

The Cruz-Levin thesis is that such showdowns are a question of toughness. If the Republicans develop stronger wills, fight harder, and dig in their heels for longer, they will prevail over the Democrats. As Levin noted in his October inquisition of Johnson, polls show that a majority of the public disapproves of Obamacare. President Reagan, Levin noted, forced Speaker Tip O’Neill to enact Reagan’s policies against his will by utilizing public pressure.

The Johnson thesis is that with only the House, and not the bully pulpit Reagan enjoyed, congressional Republicans have a much more difficult task. Their proposal must be seen by the public as so eminently reasonable that it overcomes both the Republicans’ minority status in Washington and the various structural disadvantages they face — notably, media bias.

“We don’t have the White House, we don’t control the Senate,” Johnson tells me. The only way to force the Democrats to enact GOP policies “is to win big in the court of public opinion.”

Instead, to judge from polls taken during the shutdown, the opposite happened — it was Republicans feeling the political heat.

One crucial, and missing, ingredient for putting pressure on vulnerable Senate Democrats was Republican unity.

Johnson has labored behind the scenes to increase cooperation between House and Senate Republicans in order to allow the party to form something close to a rational strategy. Clearly, he hasn’t succeeded. One reason why: In the world of business, Johnson could utilize a framework of strategic planning, picking achievable goals based on a study of what change is realistic, designing strategies to achieve those goals, and then devising tactics to support those strategies. But the GOP isn’t a business; it does not have the hierarchical arrangement and firing ability that make coordinating such efforts vastly easier.

But if the party can’t operate with the ruthless efficiency of a top corporation, it could have come together to devise something comprehensible over the summer, having a plan ready in time to use the August recess to broadcast the messaging. It was not to be.

At a meeting with around ten conservative senators and twenty representatives of outside groups such as the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth convened in July by Senator Mike Lee of Utah to discuss the defunding strategy, Johnson was the lone voice of dissent, telling his colleagues that he expected their plan to divide Republicans and end in defeat. His plan certainly couldn’t have done any worse.

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.


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