The Republican party is not in a good place right now. They are historically unpopular (particularly House Republicans); they have no discernible governing agenda; they are under assault from their own supporters; they continue to say stupid things that upset key voting groups … and – guess what? – things are about to get even worse.
Case in point: the ongoing GOP obsession with Obamacare.
It’s now been three and half years since the legislation was signed into law; more than a year since it was upheld by the US supreme court, and nearly 10 months since Mitt Romney, running on a pledge to repeal it, was defeated in the 2012 presidential election. Yet, rather than accept the reality of Obamacare, the GOP’s effort to ensure that millions of Americans are prevented from receiving healthcare coverage and remain forever mired in financial and personal anxiety because of their lack of insurance continues unabated.
How to accomplish that, of course, is the hard part – particularly since Democrats control the Senate and the bill’s namesake is sitting in the Oval Office. Indeed, because of this political reality, Republicans have appeared lately to be putting aside their strategy of shutting down the federal government in October unless Obamacare is defunded.
But don’t pop those champagne corks too soon. Instead, they are now debating the idea of refusing to raise the debt limit in return for a White House agreement to “delay” implementing Obamacare. This is the political equivalent of “we’re not going to hold our breath until we turn blue and collapse now; instead, we’re going to wait a few additional weeks and then we’re going to hold our breath until we turn blue and collapse.”
Now, granted, if the GOP wants to knock themselves out (literally), who are we, as non-crazy and rational people, to stop them? Knock yourself out, GOP!
The problem, however, is that while shutting down the government would be bad for the country and disastrous for the GOP, it’s not the desired political Armageddon. Refusing to raise the debt limit – well, that’s something else altogether. So, instead of holding its breath, collapsing and perhaps suffering a nasty cut, the GOP would prefer to hold its breath, collapse and fall on a plunger – a la Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai – and blow up the whole goddamn bridge. (In this analogy, the bridge is a stand-in for the US economy.)
In fact, it’s hard to imagine a greater self-inflicted wound that Congress could impose on the nation than not raising debt limit. It would put at risk the full faith and credit of the United States and do grievous harm to the US economy.
The GOP’s new “defund Obamacare” strategy actually increases this terrifying possibility. By avoiding a government shutdown in October, Republicans will dodge the immediate political minefield of their own making. But at the same time, if Republicans agree to pass a budget and keep the government up-and-running (while getting nothing in return from the White House), it will further increase the pressure on the Republican leadership of Speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell to get something, anything, out of the White House when the debt limit ceiling needs to be raised.
The problem, of course, is that the President Obama has made clear he has no intention of negotiating over the debt limit – a mistake he made in the summer of 2011 that he dares not repeat again. That immovable obstacle makes the GOP’s efforts to defund Obamacare a largely fruitless exercise.
Democrats aren’t going to deal and they know (or, at least, strongly assume) that Republicans will give in eventually – and they are probably right. The GOP has negotiated itself into a completely untenable position: namely, one in which the last hostage they can take (the debt limit) they have no real intention of killing and no real interest in doing so.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t shoot the hostage by accident or out of rank, careless stupidity. That’s what makes this game so dangerous. But for Republicans, the danger is even greater – because while debt default can perhaps be avoided long-term, catastrophic damage to the GOP likely cannot. If Republicans let the nation default on its debt, they will pay a very heavy political price for doing so. It is almost certain that the American public will hold the GOP responsible.
But if Republicans give in on the debt limit/defund Obamacare strategy, they will not only have failed to stop Obamacare this fall, but they will also have failed to stop Obamacare, period. The law’s healthcare exchanges go into effect 1 October, and the law becomes fully enacted on 1 January 2014. Once that occurs, the train will have left the station and there will be no turning back.
For those Americans who can’t get health insurance or have an ounce of social empathy for their fellow citizens, this is an altogether good thing. For Republicans, it will be yet another sign of their impotence and their failure as a political party. And it will be made worse if Boehner and McConnell are forced to rely on Democratic votes to pass a clean debt limit extension.
The incandescent rage from Tea Partiers at yet another bout of failed brinkmanship will not be directed at Obama; it will be directed at their own leaders.
It’s already happening. This week, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander joined Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell in finding himself under assault from a Tea Party primary challenge. Alexander is hardly a moderate (he even penned an op-ed this week defending his conservative bonafides), but in the increasingly radicalized GOP, he’s considered something of a Rino (Republican In Name Only). His crime: an apparent willingness to seek “compromise” with Democrats.
At the same time, conservative groups are now funding ad campaigns against Republicans in both the House and Senate for refusing to embrace the Tea Party’s suicidal defund Obamacare strategy. For Republicans who are in safe seats or in red states the biggest threat they face today is not from Democrats, but from their own supporters – and even more directly, from potential primary challenges. Considering how many “establishment Republicans” have lost Senate and House primaries to outside-the-mainstream Tea Party candidates in the past two election cycles, this is no idle threat.
So, while this intra-party challenge reduces the desire of Republicans compromise, it also makes them that much more vulnerable politically when they are forced to do so. It’s not difficult to imagine that when the smoke clears from this fall’s budget showdown and debt limit hostage-taking that Republicans will find themselves mired in full-scale civil war with Tea Party radicals who are even further emboldened to push their no-compromise agenda on the party.
Keep in mind, that’s the best possible outcome for Republicans. The worst one is that they blow up the US economy.