The congressional battle over defunding Obamacare through the Continuing Resolution has all the intrigue and internecine bickering of a tawdry cable reality show.
But beneath this veneer lies the fundamental question of the role of government. The media, shallow as ever, tend to focus on the horse race aspects of who is up and who is down, largely couched in comparisons of competing strategies and paths to success. But herein lies the real tragedy of the debate playing out today. In a phrase, we have seen this show before.
For context, we need to rewind 14 months. I will not name names. It was a private meeting and I’ll honor its confidential nature. I will, however, discuss its contents. They are most instructive as we view the Obamacare defunding battle today, the political equivalent of Waterloo. We just don’t know which party is Wellington and which, Napoleon.
It was July 25, 2012. At a private weekly meeting of conservatives, a Member of Congress had brought news that made our jaws drop. With the Continuing Resolution (CR) debate looming, the entirety of the GOP on Capitol Hill was united in the strategy to give the Obama administration everything it wanted.
You read that correctly. The opening bid in the 2012 CR debate from the Republicans was going to be a complete surrender to the president. Further, we were told the GOP message to the Democrats was going to be: take it or leave it. We’ll give you everything and not one penny more.
We asked for an emergency meeting with members from both chambers later that day.
At 5:30 that evening, in a room overflowing with senators, representatives, and conservative leaders, we had it out. We were offered the strategic thinking as devised by the establishment GOP leadership and accepted by its members. In short: Why rock the boat with a government shutdown showdown, when everything is breaking our way?
It was the belief of the GOP consultancy class, a wisdom passed along to and accepted by the GOP leadership on the Hill, that at the very least Mitt Romney should, probably could, and quite possibly would win the presidency in November. Why ruin this opportunity by threatening a government shutdown which would surely be blamed on Republicans and would surely be used by Obama to great advantage, and in a close race could destroy Republicans’ chances to capture the White House?
The political picture in the Senate was equally clear, we were told. Every poll and every pundit was convinced Republicans were going to capture the Senate handily, and all of Harry Reid’s horses and all of his men couldn’t keep a majority in place again – unless Republicans insisted on fighting this stupid fight.
The numbers were irrefutable, we were told. There was a 52-48 split in the Senate with Republicans poised to make the kind of gains in November that would obliterate the Democratic majority. In state after state, the Republican takeover was probable, if not assured. It was a very real possibility that Republicans could win eight key races (Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Virginia, Wisconsin) giving them a commanding 56-seat majority. Why in the world risk this glorious probability with a foolish shutdown that would certainly backfire on Republicans? It would be political suicide.
The bottom line: come Election Day 2012, a Republican was going to capture the White House, Republicans the Senate, and with their majority in the House preserved (even enhanced) the GOP could move in January to undo all manner of awful things, including all things Obamacare, which would include the funding provided by them in the CR in question that day.
How… tidy. The message from the establishment GOP to conservatives last summer was crystal clear: we know what we’re doing. Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told.
I was tasked with presenting a response. This “strategy” presented to us was just too much. Having fought in the trenches for three decades, I was not enamored of the political idiocy on display. To these members of Congress, so many being such good, courageous conservatives on any – on every – other day, so many I consider also to be friends, I delivered a rebuttal the likes of which they never expected from a fellow conservative.
It was the political prognostication shared by my conservative colleagues, and it was the exact opposite of the establishment’s.
The conservative movement is, unquestionably, the heart and soul of the GOP. It continues to be the height of arrogance for the moderate wing, now controlling the levers of power within the party, to presume that conservatives will follow them, willy-nilly, no matter what the moderates do or don’t do. How many times does history need to prove them wrong?
I reminded them that after a six-year spending binge by the Bush administration, all the while taking for granted the support of conservatives whose core beliefs were being shattered by this lurch toward an ever more obese federal government, the roof collapsed on Republicans in 2006. Conservatives stayed home that year, and the establishment GOP lost control of both Houses of Congress.
These politicians were reminded how, two years later, the Washington establishment Republicans were back in vogue and declaring that no “right wing ideologue” (which is about their most charitable description for conservatives) could possibly win the presidency in 2008. Again we were told only an acceptable moderate – in this case, Sen. John McCain – could succeed and must therefore be supported. Disaster struck again when conservatives stayed home.
In just two scant years, the GOP managed to lose both houses of Congress, and then the presidency, by embracing the political prescriptions of the moderate establishment wing of the party. And they expected us, in 2012, to fall into step behind them. No, we warned these Republicans. Something very bad was going to happen if they heeded the advice of the Beltway Punditocracy.
We warned the establishment that the results of 2012 would be devastating if Republicans did nothing of substance to stop Obamacare when they could do so and, instead, surrendered without a fight but with a lot of excuses – again. We forecast that millions of conservatives would stay home. We predicted this GOP capitulation would cost Mitt Romney the presidency and the Republicans the Senate. But our warnings fell on deaf ears. The decision had been made. After issuing all the perfunctory pledges to live to fight another day, the party surrendered on defunding Obamacare, offering Obama all he’d asked for in the CR, which he happily accepted, but not before adding billions more in spending knowing he had no opposition.
So who was right?
On Election Day, the Republicans were routed virtually everywhere. Not a single GOP consultant foresaw that in the presidential race, three million less voters would show up for Romney than were there for McCain four years earlier, but that is what happened. The results left the establishment GOP’s chief guru, Karl Rove, stuttering and sputtering in disbelief during live coverage of the election returns.
In the Senate, the results were arguably even more devastating. The Republicans not only failed to achieve the overwhelming majority they’d so confidently predicted, they succeeded with the unimaginable: they actually lost two seats. Democrats generated 1.4 million more voters than Republicans in House races, and the only thing that saved the GOP majority in that chamber was redistricting.
Today, we are reliving the miscalculation of the Summer of 2012 with moderate Republicans, bolstered by the professional consultants and even by some wobbly-kneed faux conservatives (the kind that couldn’t stomach Ronald Reagan either), declaring that if the GOP picks a fight over defunding Obamacare, the world will spin off its axis; while, on the other hand, if they do nothing at all, victory will be had next year.
Shame on any Republican who listens to these losers – and they are just that: repeat and stunningly incompetent losers. If Republicans capitulate by surrendering and funding this hideous law, the results will be even more dire. This time, there is no “next time” with Obamacare. This is the last chance, which is why no one has a Plan B. This time it won’t be discouragement or demoralization that drives conservatives away. It will be anger over a betrayal. This time it won’t be Republicans failing to stop Obamacare. This time it will be Republicans taking ownership of Obamacare.
It is time for every Republican Senator, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to stand by Senators Mike Lee and Ted Cruz and do everything in their power to defend and preserve the defund language passed in the House CR.
If Republicans don’t fight this Obamacare battle with the sense of purpose required to win – and it’s a battle they most certainly can win – the loudest sound on Election Day 2014 will be the mass exodus of conservatives to the door, looking for new parties, or maybe just a nice beach to get away from it all. I suspect many, if not most, will never return.