As conservative Senators Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and others attempt to build support for a plan to defund Obamacare in this fall’s forthcoming budget battles, they have faced criticism from fellow conservatives on two grounds: first, it will be difficult to convince enough Democrats to agree; second, there is little that can be done to stop a program already in motion.
(Criticism from the left objects to the attempt to “sabotage” the program, forgetting some Democrats’ efforts to defund the Iraq War, with troops in the field.)
The critics overlook the strongest case for attempting to defund Obamacare: namely, that doing so is an urgent political necessity to save a party rapidly losing touch with its voter base.
Conservatives–and, in fact, Americans in general–are eager for an effective opposition party. Among the many different explanations for why Mitt Romney lost in 2012–changing demographics, Tea Party suppression, the “47 percent” remark–the fact remains that he was the candidate least qualified to take on the policy most objectionable to voters.
Obamcare remains deeply unpopular, not just among Republicans: now even unions are complaining. Up to now, the public has seen one interest group after another line up for special waivers and exemptions, but no effort to unite the opposition in common cause against the law itself. Instead, Americans–and conservatives in particular–have watched as one Republican governor after another (with a few noteworthy exceptions) elected in 2009-20 with Tea Party support, has lined up to accept Obamacare’s expanded Medicaid funds.
Nothing could be more demoralizing for the Republican party’s base heading into the 2014 elections. And after watching Republicans (admirably) resist President Barack Obama’s gun control efforts, voters have spent the last several months seething as GOP Senators who were elected on specific promises to oppose “amnesty” have devoted themselves to the task of helping Congress fulfill Obama’s immigration reform agenda. The Republican Party is failing in the fundamental goal of providing effective political opposition.
That is not all the Republican Party must do, of course. It must also govern–especially in the House, where it controls a strong majority. And governing means more than passing admirable bills that the Senate never considers.
That is why, for example, House Budget Committee chair Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is pressing ahead with efforts to pass an immigration bill. Whereas Republicans in the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” sought the most liberal bill they could get away with, Ryan is trying to craft the most conservative proposal that can pass both houses.
Yet voters want–and deserve–more from Republicans when it comes to opposition. For five years, the GOP has failed to provide a coherent ideological and political alternative, ever since the financial crisis, when the party’s presidential candidate joined his rival in supporting the Wall Street bailout. To Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), that massive intervention was a temporary measure; to then-Sen. Barack Obama, it was a permanent one. Regardless, by the time of their first debate a few days later, there was little difference between them.
The benefits of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) may have outweighed the costs. Yet the bailout did enduring damage to our political system. At that crucial moment, there was no leader willing to stand up for the principles of the free market, no leader telling the country that the temporary pain of absorbing the harsh costs of bad investments and bad policy might be worth the long-term preservation of the incentives that made our economy and society, the most dynamic in the world. Conservatives stayed home in droves.
They stayed home again in 2012–in greater numbers–not only because the Republican Party offered them a veteran of Wall Street, but also because the nominee himself had provided the template for Obamacare and could not convince voters he would lead the fight against it.
Republicans in Congress have yet to fulfill–or even attempt to fulfill–the basic opposition mandate they were given in 2010. Far from “destroying” the GOP, the effort to defund Obamacare–win or lose–may be the only way to save the Republican Party.