The Agenda

Suicide Lemmings and the Republican Primary Battles to Come

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) is known for being one of the sharpest policy thinkers in the House. It turns out that he also has impeccable political judgment, having recently described Republican defunders as “lemmings with suicide vests.” But in an interview with Ashley Parker of the New York Times, Nunes also demonstrates that he is sensitive to the needs of small woodland creatures: “It’s kind of an insult to call them lemmings, so they’d have to be more than just a lemming, because jumping to your death is not enough.” In a perfect world, Nunes’s wise words would be all that needs to be said about the week in Congress so far.

But there is a small problem. Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg have a short guide to public opinion on Obamacare, which includes the following on public support for repeal:

In nine Fox News surveys of registered voters since October 2010, between 27 percent and 39 percent have wanted to repeal the law entirely. When given a full set of options about whether to expand it, keep it as it is, or repeal it, other pollsters put the “repeal entirely” response at around 20 percent, with an additional 15 to 20 percent saying parts of it should be repealed. At the other end of the spectrum, as noted above, around 20 percent want to expand it.

If only 20 percent of voters favor “repeal entirely,” which is close to the consensus view among congressional Republicans, you’d think the defund strategy would be even less popular. But you’d be wrong:

In the September 2013 CBS News/New York Times poll, 56 percent said they would like Congress to “uphold the law and make it work as well as possible,” while 38 percent wanted it to “try to stop the law from being put into place by cutting off funding to implement it.” On 10 occasions since January 2011, Kaiser has asked people about defunding. Their latest results were similar to the CBS results: 56 percent disapproved of cutting off funding, while 37 percent approved.

The defund caucus in Congress represent a minority — but unfortunately for Republicans who hope to win in swing districts, they represent a minority that neatly overlaps with the GOP’s core constituency. (Note that a Quinnipiac survey recently found that only 22 percent favored “shutting down the federal government to block implementation,” per Rich Lowry.)

By way of comparison, the Pew Research Center found that in 2012, 39 percent of Americans identified as conservative, while 37 percent identified as moderate and 20 percent identified as liberal. Byron York has observed that there are roughly 30 members of the House Republican conference (out of 233) driving the defund strategy, and that an additional 20–30 members stand with them in part out of fear of a primary challenge. This threat is real.

Democrats, meanwhile, feel secure in ignoring the 20 percent of the electorate that hopes to expand Obamacare, presumably because members of this group recognize that they’re not likely to get a better deal from Republicans. Conservative voters, in contrast, seem to believe that the push for defunding is not going to jeopardize conservative control of the House, and some presumably believe that it will help Republicans rally what they take to be the silent anti-Obamacare majority. The problem, of course, is that 56 percent of the public favors the “uphold the law and make it work as well as possible” approach.

Basically, I think we’re screwed, at least for now. We need members of the defund caucus to step back from the brink. But they have every reason to believe that their stance will redound to their political benefit in their districts. The Republican leadership has few if any tools with which to discipline members of the defund caucus, as individual members have their own fundraising networks and there are no earmarks to be parceled out. The only way out of this trap appears to be a long, slow learning process.

(One theory as to why the violence associated with the crack cocaine epidemic eventually subsided is that young people growing up in urban neighborhoods plagued by crack eventually concluded that “crack is wack.” Unfortunately, this learning process proved very time-consuming and expensive.)

I recommend Ross Douthat’s remarks on whether members of the defund caucus are making a reasonable political calculation, and Sean Trende’s analysis of the possible political implications of the shutdown. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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