Defund Denied

The Best Republican Efforts Are Not Enough to Defund Obamacare

There’s no way congressional Republicans can defund Obamacare. Michael Tomasky on what that means for the election cycles ahead.

Are the Republicans really serious about defunding Obamacare? The answer depends on (a) which Republicans you mean and (b) how you define serious. We’ll get into all that below, but let’s cut to the chase: No. Defunding health-care implementation is something that I believe they will find to be totally impossible to do while in the congressional opposition, especially under the circumstances that are being discussed currently. For a lot of Republicans, the likely coming failure of this effort will redirect them to the next presidential election. And that, in turn, is likely to benefit the candidacy of the man who has most closely identified himself with the defunding movement, Ted Cruz. The question is, how much will he benefit?

The lay of the land right now, after you strip away the rhetorical bluster, is this. A mere 14 Republican senators (out of 45) have signed Mike Lee’s letter pressing for defunding Obamacare. The letter has been out there for a while, and I’m told that few, if any, more are expected to sign. So, one third of the Senate caucus.

Then Thursday, a House version (PDF) of the Lee letter was released. It has 80 signatures. That’s a big drop-off from last year, when 127 Republicans signed a similar letter. As with the Senate, this 80 number constitutes almost exactly one third of the House GOP caucus. Not a huge number. In addition, this letter, circulated by a North Carolina representative named Mark Meadows, contains no explicit threat that the undersigned will oppose any funding bills that include Obamacare money. It just “urges” John Boehner and Eric Cantor to defund health care.

One third of each caucus doesn’t amount to that much leverage. It’s probably not enough to block, so it would be shocking if Boehner and Cantor went this route. In a new poll released Thursday, respondents were asked whether they favored shutting down the government “as a way to defund the president’s health-care law.” Seventy-one percent would not approve of such a move. Even among Republicans, “no” got a majority of 53 percent, to 37 percent who favored. Ditto when the respondent universe was reduced to people planning on voting Republican next year: 51 percent voted “no,” 40 percent voted “yes.”

If those numbers don’t change—and if the threat appears to be getting more real as the October 1 deadline approaches, the numbers are, if anything, likely to change in the Democrats’ favor—there is almost no chance there will be a shutdown. So that moves us along to the fall’s second big fiscal event, the debt ceiling increase, which will hit in late October or early November. On Wednesday, a Cantor aide told Reuters that that moment represented a “good leverage point” for possible defunding.

This is probably nonsense too. Corporate America isn’t going to let the Republican Party force America into insolvency. The Republicans are crazy enough to do things that damage the economy as long as it hurts Obama, as they’ve proven many times, but I really don’t think they’re crazy enough to do something that will really seriously, dangerously damage the economy, and will damage them. They might pass a debt-limit increase with a kind of defund proposition in there, but it could be in essence nonbinding, or something on which they’d have to take a later affirmative vote. This would be the way they’d try to blow smoke at their hardest-core portion of their base. But, to use Cruz’s terminology, it would constitute “blinking.”

So the odds are, however ugly this fall is, that we’re going to get through it with Obamacare intact. Then this drumbeat will start on the right. Well, we couldn’t defeat it in opposition, so there’s only one answer. We have to win the White House, hold the House, and capture the Senate. Then we can repeal. This is actually fiction, too; they would need 60 Senate seats, and maybe more, and they aren’t getting that. But it’s their only shot, and it’s the kind of fiction that people love to pretend can come true.

The question then becomes whether right-wing apoplexy about Obamacare grows or fades between 2014 and 2016. It’s possible that matters reach the point of no return. However, if asked to bet whether right-wing apoplexy will grow or shrivel, the smart money obviously has to say the former.

The beneficiary, clearly, would be Cruz. He owns this issue now. Marco Rubio tried owning an issue, immigration, but it was a challenge to the base, and it blew up in his face. Rand Paul owns one issue, opposition to national-security state hegemony, but the base is divided on that, and besides it’s too many syllables. They picked wrong. Cruz picked right: Obamacare. Meat doesn’t get any redder. He will, by 2016, be carrying around with him the added benefit, if things go this year as I’ve outlined above, of being the noble warrior who fought the good fight and lost.

Hard to say at this point, of course, what percentage of Republicans will share his outrage enough to vote for someone who is so obviously unelectable. But as far as 2013 is concerned, every yard the party loses to Obamacare is a yard gained by Cruz to be banked for future use, which I’m sure he knows.