The Corner

The Missing Ingredient in the Argument for Alternatives to Shutdown

A great many conservatives are convinced House Republicans are making a serious mistake – convinced that the Tea Party is leading the Republican party into if not oblivion then something approaching the purgatory that followed the botched 1995 shutdown fight. In a characteristically thoughtful post, Ross Douthat fears we may soon face among the worst possible outcomes:

Right now, then, a kind of sour spot seems like a pretty plausible outcome for Republicans: A shutdown that lasts just long enough to convince swing voters that the G.O.P. can’t be trusted with the reins of government, but also ends with the party’s grassroots convinced that they’ve been sold out by their leaders once again.

Yuval Levin’s extended post is also worth a close read, providing a nice roadmap for continued opposition to Obamacare in the aftermath of the shutdown strategy. Particularly well-taken is the call for a positive vision for health-care policy, one that doesn’t rest solely on opposition to Obamacare.

These are thoughtful critiques, well worth pondering as the shutdown drags on (if it drags on), but the ultimate effectiveness of the argument for delaying or de-escalating the fight depends on a missing ingredient: Trust. Grassroots conservatives simply don’t trust that Republicans will be ultimately motivated to do anything other than nibble at the edges of Obamacare as the country hooks itself on yet another inefficient, ultimately destructive bureaucracy. After all, an election triumph is of marginal utility if it results in only marginal (at best) positive action. Safeguarding future electoral prospects becomes its own, endlessly repeatable, justification for caution.  

By no means should we gamble on just any piece of legislation, but Obamacare represents a unique affront to our political and constitutional structure. First, the political. As I posted last week, Obamacare was the most partisan piece of social legislation of the past 100 years, a massive reform of our health-care system and economy rammed through over the objection of every Republican and against the polled preferences of a majority of Americans. That’s a recipe for continual conflict and divisiveness, and President Obama’s approach stands in direct contrast to President Bush’s approach in 2005, as his highly touted and vigorously campaigned for Social Security reforms foundered in the face of united Democratic opposition. President Obama conducted political trench warfare in support of his signature domestic achievement. He should expect no lesser response from Republicans.

Next, the constitutional. The Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision hardly ends the debate about the impact of the ACA on our Constitution. The grant of permission to the federal government to coerce individual purchasing decisions already has had profound consequences on religious liberty. In fact, through the HHS mandate, President Obama followed up the ACA not by offering an olive branch to political opponents but by doubling down on the direct challenge to their most dearly held values. And for what? Were contraceptives and abortion pills really that hard to find? Was America experiencing a contraception or abortion shortage? Far from it. The HHS mandate was nothing but a declaration of a new front in the culture war.

Simply put, conservatives want to see their elected officials demonstrate at least as much courage of conviction as has long been presumed to exist on the left. Until they do — until they make the display of such conviction a habit – there will be no trust, and there should be no trust.

Yes, yes, I know that the media make the fight less fair, that they cast Democratic intransigence as principled and Republican stubbornness as something approaching anarchy and terrorism. After all, it took both parties to shut down the government. I also know that savvy politicians account for those realities and react to them. But when critical constitutional and political norms are at stake, that’s an argument for maximum effort in transforming the media narrative, not for slow-motion surrender, managed decline into ever-greater dependency, and endless assurances that we need not draw the line in the sand this time because if only we give in now, we’ll be more effective later.

Pundits endlessly repeat the maxim that “elections have consequences.” Many of us are just as concerned with another possibility, that elections prove to have no significant consequences. But today, however, the elections of 2010 are colliding head-on with the election of 2012. We shall see who ultimatley prevails.


David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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