I oppose Obamacare. I have from the very beginning. And I have been writing about it consistently since 2009.
I don’t like the structure, the taxes or mandates. I don’t like the truly sweeping grants of power/authority to un-elected bureaucrats to regulate 1/6th of the US economy, as well as the most personal aspects of American lives. I didn’t like the blatantly phony budget numbers and the double counting that enterprising Democrats used to squeeze the bill into an acceptable 10-year budget window. I didn’t like the “cash for cloture” – the appalling kickbacks from Harry Reid to wavering Democratic Senators, that assured passage. I didn’t like the process used to approve the bill, a straight partisan vote, over the opposition of a majority of the American people, made possible only through extraordinary “reconciliation” procedures.
On the day of Obamacare’s passage, I called the “individual mandate” unconstitutional, which was considered absurd at the time, before SCOTUS entered with a reality check and ultimately took the case. After SCOTUS improbably saved the law, I set aside my reservations about Mitt Romney because he promised that if elected, he would repeal the law. In between and since, I have documented a rollout that confirmed the fears, written over the years, about the truly adverse impact of the law on individuals, the healthcare/medical industry and the economy. I invite you to go look. Search term, “Obamacare.”
I lay out this long and detailed record because my bone fides, and those of so many other thoughtful and principled citizens and legislators, have been called into question by Tea Party conservatives in Congress. These officials have created an artificial litmus test for Obamacare opposition to justify a reckless and self-destructive legislative path they wish to take this fall. Opposition, without a winning strategy to support it, is worse than foolhardy. Rank and file Republicans must take a stand against a mindless and short-sighted approach that will damage the party long into the future without achieving any goals.
As has become standard during the Obama years, Congress has failed to pass any of the 12 appropriations bills to fund the government for the next fiscal year. So far, the Republican-controlled House has passed four bills. The Democrat-controlled Senate hasn’t passed any. Reconciled versions of all 12 bills, approved by both the House and Senate, are required to send the bills to the President for signature. With the House and Senate out of Washington until September 9th, and then only in session for about nine days before the end of the fiscal year on September 30th, it is unlikely that any of the appropriations heavy lifting will get done before the government runs out spending authority. That, in turn, will require Congress to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR), an interim funding mechanism that authorizes spending for the government at current levels until new, longer-term funding vehicle can be approved.
Enter the Tea Party conservatives in Congress.
As Obamacare comes to life on October 1st (with the official deadline for the establishment of state insurance exchanges), and with Americans required to buy insurance effective January 1, 2014, Tea Party conservatives see the coming budget fight at the end of September as the last, best chance of killing Obamacare, the law. The plan, such as it is, would have Congress pass a CR that funds all government requirements, except Obamacare, essentially crippling the law at its most critical juncture. Under this scenario, President Obama, faced with a government shutdown, would reluctantly sign the CR to keep the government open, and fight the Obamacare battle in 2015. It would be a stunning victory for Obamacare opponents.
Sounds so easy doesn’t it? If people of conscience and principle would just stand up and show some courage and spine, Obamacare will be on life support before Columbus Day. That the plan ignores elementary political reality has not deterred the ardor with which leading Tea Party conservatives approach the matter. Indeed, if you point out the realities, even as an Obamcare critic, your heresy simply labels you as part of the larger problem in DC – “the Establishment.” If sanity and common sense are the apparent virtues of the Establishment, then consider me convicted as charged.
Consider the pithy comment of Senator Mike Lee of Utah that summarizes Tea Party thinking. ”Defund it, or own it. If you fund it, you’re for it.”
Preposterous and terribly misguided. What’s worse, not only will this plan fail to stop Obamacare, it will likely have profoundly negative implications next year on a mid-term battlefield that, at least right now, is looking good for the GOP.
Here are two reality checks for Senator Lee and his supporters as they mull their final path leading into September.
You cannot work your will controlling a single house in Congress: No doubt an Obamacare defunding CR would pass the House, mostly likely on a partisan vote. But where do you go from there?
Harry Reid brought shame on his office in the manner that he strong-armed Obamacare through the Senate. Democrats took enormous losses in 2010 because of Obamacare, yet, the law survives. Does any reasonable person believe that Reid is going to allow a CR defunding that accomplishment to see the light of day in the Senate?
But for the sake or argument, let suppose that such a CR did pass the Senate. Does anyone think that the President would actually defund his defining accomplishment? Would FDR sign on to repeal Social Security? Would Johnson have repealed Medicare? Would Reagan agreed to a top tax rate of 70%? There is absolutely zero chance that Barack Obama will ever agree to do so, taking his chances fighting it out in the public arena where POTUS and his aides already know they have a built-in advantage.
A government shutdown never works to the GOP’s advantage: the success of the Tea Party approach here is predicated on what can charitably be called a suspension of disbelief - that in a public relations battle over who would be responsible for a government shutdown, that the American people would blame President Obama and the Democrats for refusing to defund Obamacare, rather than the GOP for holding up funding for a policy objective.
We’ve been down this road before. Everyone talks about the horrific impact of the ’95 shutdown initiated by Newt Gingrich. But the 2011 fight over the debt limit is also relevant here. Republicans took the government to the very brink, impacting the US credit rating, triggering a measurable drop in consumer confidence and causing a retraction in economic growth. President Obama saw a temporary hit to his approval numbers, but he rebounded and ultimately won re-election. For the eventual budget agreement that has since given us Sequestration, the GOP took a very big hit as the party of wealthy plutocrats that cares little if at all for the average working stiff. That image persists to this day.
Perhaps the approach would have more merit if the Tea Party goal was to defund something that was causing actual harm to Americans. We have all heard the secondary impacts of Obamacare before its rollout – the spike in part-time workers, the unaffordable minimum policies, the intrusive regulations. But the reality is that Americans have yet to feel the brunt of Obamacare. The Tea Party conservatives are asking Americans to accept real pain – delayed Social Security checks, closed national parks, etc – to trigger a change in policy for a program they have not yet experienced. No matter how many Americans oppose Obamacare – and they are in the majority, consistently since 2009 – Americans will not accept this particular linkage, because the result is not measurable in their day-to-day lives.
It is worth remembering that Obamacare effectively birthed the Tea Party movement, and it was four Augusts ago that Tea Party activism at Town Hall meetings served as an organizing focal point for voter disenchantment with government-run amok. But all the grass-roots activism in 2009 and 2010 could not stop passage of the bill. It could not elect a Republican president who would dismantle the law. But now, somehow, when public activism has turned to apathy, Tea Party conservatives are sure of massive public support for their position will carry the day? That is a dangerous presumption.
And lets not forget that President Obama and his allies will not be standing still as all this unfolds. The President who has consistently run circles around the GOP and dominated the economic narrative for the country – despite his appalling record of accomplishment – represents a cautionary tale on calling out a Chief Executive on his strongest rhetorical ground. Indeed, one can fairly see President Obama chomping on the bit to rally the nation to his side, against the plutocrat Republican special interests that are holding up granny’s Medicare and Social Security so that they can take away your son’s healthcare.” What better way to distract from the cascading scandals and bad economic news than a GOP blunder that places the party back at the center of the news. It would be an Axelrod dream.
Consider the likely context of this coming debate. The GOP is not starting this exercise with public confidence. Only 19 percent of voters approve of the GOP (versus 31 percent who approve of the Democrats). And as far as issues, 56 percent of Americans are concerned about the economy and the deficit. Healthcare comes in at 15 percent. A GOP action that triggers a government shutdown, impacting the economy, is a loser plain and simple.
And which side do we think the media will support? What’s a better story, a grateful citizen who will not have to pay a healthcare premium next year? Or the destitute senior who goes without food because her Social Security check hasn’t come? Rush Limbaugh has postulated that the rise of conservative media that did not exist during the 1995 shutdown would provide a formidable defense for Lee Cruz et.al., but that is not persuasive given the results from Election 2012. If anything, the new portals of news and social media provide more channels for POTUS and his media acolytes to dominate news cycles that simply pummel the GOP.
For the White House, it would be shooting fish in a barrel.
The harsh truth is that there is only one way this ends; with a humiliating defeat for the GOP. How big a defeat depends on how long it takes for Republicans to find an agreement that can command a majority in the House. The longer it takes, the worse it is.
But that is only the beginning of the bad news.
The shutdown will ultimately have been for nothing, but the public narrative will have been changed decisively. Instead of going into 2014 talking about the Obama scandals, the Obama economy and the abject failure of Obamacare the program, the narrative will be about how radical, dangerous and irresponsible the GOP is. How it cannot be trusted with authority. How the GOP will impoverish the middle class, hurt seniors and the poor to prevent a program designed to provide health coverage for the uninsured, all to serve the interests of the rich and the well-connected. The TV ads fairly write themselves.
In a way, this is not that different from 2012 where the campaign was not so much about the quality of leadership that President Obama provided, as it was simply that no matter what POTUS’ record was, Obama was a better risk for average Americans than the other guy. And that was enough to win the election. In 2014, it could be enough to stem GOP gains that seem promising today. Certainly to deny the Republicans control of the Senate, which is within their grasp, if not to lose control of the House outright.
To credibly beat Obamacare, in the current circumstances, requires Republicans to play the “long game.” The GOP must do two things. First, it has to win elections. It needs to control the Senate and the House, and it needs to run a winner in 2016. Second, and in parallel, the GOP needs to define what will replace Obamacare. Opposition, for opposition’s sake was fine as the bill was being debated, when the law was before SCOTUS, and then on ’12 campaign trail. Now, as a dysfunctional, but operational program, the GOP must provide voters with their principled opposition and a plan to improve the quality and access to healthcare. Only in that way can Republicans win the argument and support of the American people.
It has been said that no major entitlement program, once enacted, has ever been repealed, and that is true. But no major entitlement program ever passed on a purely partisan vote, to the consistent and durable opposition of a majority of the American people. No entitlement has ever been so intrusive and disruptive as Obamacare will be. No entitlement has ever forced Americans to lose their preferred coverage, or their doctor, or to lose hours at work, or subsidize medications and procedures that conflict with their religious beliefs. And that is only the beginning.
Obamacare can be overturned. It should be overturned. But unless the GOP, writ large, plays smart, the actions by Tea Party conservatives will, ironically, likely contribute to the law’s longer-term permanence.
I don’t lack the courage for a good, principled fight, Senator Lee. But I don’t fight for the sake of fighting. I fight to win. There is a difference. GOP success in the coming months, and then the coming years, depends on understanding that fact.
May your recess bring enlightenment.