Perhaps because I have spent considerable time in the world of opposition politics abroad, I find it surprising when my fellow Americans, conservatives in particular, fail to see how and why an opposition tactic, like defunding Obamacare, is necessary. In this regard our left-wing opponents are far better suited to surviving periods out of political power; today’s Democrat leaders, including both Clinton and Obama, are miles ahead.
The left understands that some struggles are worth having even if they are difficult to win because voters want politicians who are seen to stand for something. The public may like compromises and achievements but it tends not to reward them. Instead, it gravitates towards leaders who are seen to be fighting for them, and fighting for core supporters most of all. Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul understand that; few others do.
The Republicans’ biggest challenge today is not losing moderates or independents (which Mitt Romney won in 2012). Rather, the biggest challenge is motivating the party’s core supporters after the disappointment of 2012, and after several of the most promising young stars–Sen. Marco Rubio foremost among them–reneged on earlier conservative positions in favor of fatally flawed compromises on issues like immigration.
That disappointment is most acute on Obamacare, which did more to rouse the party’s base than any issue in recent memory. Opposition to Obamacare drove the historic win in the 2010 midterm elections. But the 2012 elections produced a party nominee who had enacted a similar policy in his home state. Worse, by 2013 many of the governors the Tea Party helped elect in 2009-10 had accepted Obamacare’s funding for Medicaid.
The collective effect of these losses and capitulations was demoralizing. And while Obama’s mistakes during the early months of his second term sent his approval ratings lower, those failures were not enough to restore enthusiasm for the Republican brand as an alternative. Defunding Obamacare always had a very narrow chance of success in DC, but it has been hugely successful in reviving conservative interest in the cause.
The timing could not have been more propitious. The new Obamacare exchanges are due to open in a few days, and none of them is ready. Unions are withdrawing their support for Obamacare, after realizing how much damage it will inflict on their health insurance policies and their membership. At a moment when the spotlight is finally on Obamacare’s failures, does the GOP really think “wait-’til-2016″ is a winning response?
That might be an acceptable Plan B, but it is no Plan A. By pressing ahead with an effort to defund Obamacare, Cruz and his colleagues have shifted the burden of defending the law back to the president and his party. They may have to back down, but they will have highlighted again the importance of winning both Congress and the White House–and reassured the public that Republican control will make the difference.
Several conservatives whom I admire and respect have failed to see the strategic gain in the defunding battle, focusing only on tactical setbacks. Cruz may lose, but that does not make his effort “empty,” “futile,” or “meaningless.” It is part of laying a foundation, not only for a presidential campaign (no shame in that!), but for the opposition cause itself, which cannot win by waiting for the next election, after losing badly in the last.