Whenever I read Ramesh Ponnuru I wonder why it is the conservative movement can’t be more like him. After all, it isn’t like he is exactly reasonable. I can’t usually read more than two paragraphs without being forced to sit through silly Republican talking points. For example, he never misses an opportunity to slam Obamacare as though he wouldn’t be firmly on board with the program if it had been enacted by President McCain. And this Friday, he argued that one of the reasons the recent Republican efforts (to defund Obamacare via government shutdown) will look bad is because the Republicans don’t have an alternative for healthcare reform. This is just silly. As I’ve argued before, Obamacare was the conservative alternative to healthcare reform. When they decided that it was a communist conspiracy, they left themselves with nothing. Ponnuru must know that the there is no alternative to Obamacare and thus his suggestion that the Republicans need to have one is just pure conservative propaganda.
But most of the article is quite good, Drop the Disastrous Plan to Defund Obamacare. In it, he provided five reasons why the Republican plan to shut down the government or even default on our debt is a bad idea for the Republicans themselves:
- Republicans are less popular than the Democrats and thus all else equal will lose partisan finger-pointing contests.
- The executive has natural advantages over a group of legislators in a crisis atmosphere.
- People will be naturally inclined to assume that the more anti-government party must be responsible.
- Some Republicans will say that government shutdowns or defaults are just what the country needs, and those quotes will affect the image of all Republicans.
- The news media will surely side with the Democrats.
I think this can all be boiled down into what I have come to think of as Biden’s Law. You may remember in the vice-presidential debate that Paul Ryan was talking about the almost $600 billion taken out of Medicare. He was arguing that the Republicans were the true defenders of Medicare. Joe Biden didn’t even counter the specifics; he just said, “Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?” And that is why the Republicans will hurt themselves if they shut down the government. People may not be too thrilled with Obamacare, but they don’t think it is so bad that the government should be shut down over it. What’s more, everyone knows that the Republicans are itching to shut the government down. Only the true believers will applaud this move. In the end, people will use their common sense and decide that this is not about Obamacare at all—it’s just about the fact that the Republicans hate the government.
None of this means that the Republicans won’t shut down the government and default on the debt. I think I know why conservatives are so keen on doing this—or at least threatening to do it. In the conservative world, politics is simple. If only we sent strong willed people to Washington, all problems would be solved. (Interestingly, this is part of the authoritarian mindset.) But that isn’t the way things work when you aren’t in control of the White House and Congress. So they try through force of will to get what they want. That’s why the House has voted 37 times to repeal Obamacare. I heard one Republican claim that they were going to continue to vote for repeal until it happened—as though the 37 votes would have any effect on the one vote they would take after they do have control of Washington.
The move to threaten all of government is just the next logical step for the Republicans. And it does have the advantage of being an actual strategy. It isn’t just a hope and a prayer—there is an actual mechanism by which they might win. The problem is that the very small chance they have of winning is not worth all the damage they will do to their party if they lose. As I wrote in The Next Three Election Cycles, if the Republicans manage to destroy the world economy, they will bring on their reckoning in 2014 rather than 2018.
Ponnuru isn’t the only one trying to save the Republican Party from itself. I’m just not sure what he’s saying will be enough. The only argument that might stop the most radical elements of the party is to say that Obamacare will be so terrible that the people will demand its repeal once it is in effect. The problem is that no one ever believed that argument. Republicans are saying we should repeal Obamacare right now because they know that once it is in effect people will like it. Both the extremists and the more practical members of the caucus understand that this is their last chance. The only difference between these two groups is that the practical members don’t want to destroy the party for this cause. The extremists don’t care; they were sent to Washington to destroy it; if it is a suicide mission, so be it. (Interestingly, destruction is also a part of the authoritarian mindset.)