Conservatives are right: Their window to destroy Obamacare is closing

Heritage Action for America has announced that it is undertaking a “defund Obamacare town hall tour.” The tour, which features Senator Ted Cruz, the leading evangelist of the defund-Obamacare crusade, and Heritage’s own Jim DeMint, aims to hit nine cities during the month of August — an apparent effort to recapture the magic of the now-mythical Summer of ’09, in which Tea Partyers invaded town hall meetings and changed the national conversation over health reform.

This is it, folks. The Last Stand may be on its way to becoming a new Lost Cause.

Republican leaders continue to leave open the possibility that there will be a government-shutdown confrontation to force the defunding of Obamacare. As I noted here yesterday, in so doing, they are in effect misleading the base by leaving impressions that this still could happen, when — for substantive and political reasons alike — it isn’t going to happen.

Today, in a must-read piece, Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein also spells out this argument. He points out that John Boehner has evolved a two-pronged strategy to deal with the fact that he can’t control the conservatives in his caucus:

Boehner has used two strategies to stay on top. One is a passive-aggressive approach to agenda management — wait to bring up bills that will not pass muster with the extremist hard-liners until it becomes clear that they all will suffer from inaction; this allows his members to vote against the bills while the Democrats bail them out. That worked three times, on the fiscal cliff, aid to Hurricane Sandy victims, and the Violence Against Women Act. But Boehner has very few get-out-of-jail-free cards to use this way.

The second strategy is designed to mollify his extremist hard-liners. That is, get out in front of them and promote or pursue extremist policies and rhetoric to show he is one of them. Thus, we have the Boehner who said recently, “Obamacare is bad for America.” And, “We are going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen.” That is the same Boehner who has made sure the House spends more time and attention on dozens of votes to repeal Obamacare than everything else combined. And the Boehner who, after acknowledging many times that allowing the U.S. to default would be catastrophic, now says he will join in demands that President Obama accept draconian budget cuts — in an amount equal to the increase in the debt limit, meaning hundreds of billions piled on top of the sequestration cuts — before permitting an increase in the debt limit.

And as Ornstein notes (and as I did yesterday), in the case of conservative demands for a shutdown confrontation to defund Obamacare, this is having the effect of raising the base’s expectations, which could end up blowing up in his face:

By encouraging the extremists through his rhetoric…Boehner has bought some time and averted some criticism and any chance of a revolt. But that also means that if he endorses a compromise that will fund the Affordable Care Act, move spending levels back at least to the sequester numbers, and extend the debt limit without preconditions, a sizable share of his caucus will go ballistic. Can he do that before we face a shutdown for days, weeks, or months? Can he do it before we actually breach the debt ceiling and suffer the consequences of the destruction of American economic integrity? Will the passive-aggressive approach work this time? I don’t have the answers. But I can say I am not sanguine that we will survive the fall without a major upheaval, in our economy and in Congress.

Now, in fairness to Boehner, he has shown a remarkable ability to find a way out of these messes, as Jonathan Bernstein has noted. In previous confrontations, Boehner has talked tough, taken us up to the brink…and then managed to pull off a deal.

But the problem is that Boehner has continued to defer that epic confrontation that the hard-liners continue to hope for — the one that will finally result in the ultimate Obama capitulation that is always just around the corner. And given that today’s GOP is organized to a great degree around the notion that Obamacare’s destruction was supposed to be inevitable — House Dems today put out a memo detailing 10 ways Republicans are trying to undermine the law — it really may come to pass that all bets are off this time. After all, Senator Cruz is explicitly telling people that the current defunding push is the last chance to stop Obamacare before it becomes “a permanent feature of the American economy,” adding to the urgency here.

By holding countless repeal votes, and by continuing to insist Republicans will continue targeting the law for elimination, Boehner and other GOP leaders are only keeping alive the hope that Obamacare will be destroyed before it becomes part of the American landscape. A handful of Republican Senators are trying to talk some sense into their colleagues before it’s too late, arguing that staging an Obamacare-defunding shutdown is deeply misguided and dangerous. But it’s anyone’s guess who will prevail.

We keep reading that GOP leaders have been caught off guard by the depth and ferocity of the conservative commitment to this defunding showdown. As Politico put it the other day: “Republican leaders are growing concerned by the fervor with which some members are demanding that Boehner defund the health care law as part of the government funding talks.”

But really, why are they surprised? They’ve been feeding the repeal monster for literally years now. Even if a government shutdown does happen, of course, Obamacare won’t be defunded. But plenty of other damage will be done in the process. If GOP leaders can’t control this monster, it’s on them.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | August 1, 2013