The only good thing one can say about the fantasy world invented by Republicans at last week’s debate was that most of it remains, for now, fantasy. But on Friday, a little piece of that mass hallucination materialized into our shared reality: The House voted 241-187 to block funding to Planned Parenthood.
Believe it or not, that’s the good news. The Senate version of such a bill will not pass, and so any House vote to defund Planned Parenthood is mainly for show. GOP House leaders scheduled that vote—and the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act (described by one medical group as “gross legislative interference”)—in hopes of appeasing hardliners keen on using the federal government’s upcoming budget deadline (October 1) to pressure their colleagues.
The bad news is that the GOP anti-Planned Parenthood caucus shows no signs of being appeased. “There will be a significant number of Republicans who will say, ‘I will vote no on any bill that has an opportunity to defund Planned Parenthood and fails to do so,’” Rep. Steve King (R-IA), told the AP. “I’ve never seen it get to this point where there’s this much discontent.”
The showdown over Planned Parenthood, endorsed by nine of the 11 GOP candidates on stage last week, is driven by a delusion just as radically unhinged as their talk of autism epidemics and mass deportations. But of all the mirages shared by those on the stage, the idea that a budget standoff is a reasonable response to panic-stirring propaganda is the most immediately dangerous. (The thinly-spun half-truths around the videos have created their own cottage industry of debunking: Planned Parenthood does more than abortions; federal money does not generally pay for abortions to begin with; you can’t “defund” the organization, you can only micro-manage how poor people spend their health-care money—which hasn’t worked well before.)
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are both facing active rebellion over their wish to merely avoid massive disruption (Boehner may yet fall). But in the minds of the insurgents beneath them—and the large majority of GOP presidential candidates—government is a vehicle for revenge and retribution. Competency is now read as collusion, responsibility as guilt. Recklessness is venerated as revolution, callousness as liberation.
It says something about the ludicrousness of the situation that the only two major Republican presidential candidates to resist shutdown mania included the one whose policies put him the furthest distance from the GOP base (John Kasich) and the one whose policies seem not to matter to the GOP base (Donald Trump). On this one issue, they have created a rationality wormhole, connecting otherwise non-contiguous parts of the Republican party.
But let’s not forget the small tendril of that folded space-time reaching out to Sen. Lindsay Graham, whose frustration at his compatriots’ grandstanding is all the the more poignant given how poorly he continues to do in the polls: “If you want to repeal Obamacare, get a new president. If you want to defund Planned Parenthood, elect a pro-life president, ’cause that’s the only way.”
Can you even call what the anti-choice Republicans are doing now a “strategy”? It is budgetary terrorism more than a parliamentary gimmick; Democratic and Republican leaders both maintain that no budget that cuts off Planned Parenthood will pass with a veto-proof majority. As Politico translated the situation: “It just depends how long it takes [and] how painful it is.”
There will be disastrous real-world consequences should conservatives find any version of the success they hope for. Shutting the government down last time cost the American economy between $2 billion and $6 billion, over 6,000 kids lost access to Head Start, and the Food and Drug Administration was forced to put off 800 health and safety inspections. We have evidence for what cutting off federal money from Planned Parenthood will do, too: The Congressional Budget Office issued a report that as many as 600,000 women would lose access to birth control.
But if you really want to see what a land without a robust network of abortion providers looks like, you don’t need to read a report on hypotheticals, just look around. Thanks to the hundreds of state laws nibbling at the edges of reproductive rights, clinics nationally are closing at the rate of 1.5 every week. The slow-motion return to pre-Roe America is leading to later-term, more dangerous abortions. Evidence suggests that there has been a parallel rise in even more dangerous do-it-yourself approaches, both pharmaceutical and manual.
Few anti-Planned Parenthood activists seem to have thought completely through the ramifications of their crusade; one who recently wrote an essay asking her compatriots if they were really ready for another million babies in the world. “How many of us really care about why these women want abortions and what happens to those mothers and babies after the birthing process?” she wondered. “How many of you sign-openers will be home-openers? How many will be sharing more meals and rooms than posts on social media?”
Her questions fall on the ears of those too busy talking to listen. And I’m not sure she’s asking the right questions; for all their bluster about their moral obligation to shutter Planned Parenthood, today’s Tea Party conservatives are even more zealous in their belief that government is the ultimate evil. After all, Ben Carson compared the Affordable Care Act to slavery. Ted Cruz, the shutdown’s most fevered supporter, believes that the fight over government “control” is “the epic battle of our generation.” Rand Paul put a chainsaw through the tax code. Over the summer, one in three Republicans polled said they believed Obama was running a federal military operation to invade Texas. In 2013, 44 percent of Republicans agreed that “an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties.” The rounding-error decrease to 43 percent this year does not make me feel safer.
Forget shrinking government to the size it can be drowned in a bathtub, the politicians clamoring for another shutdown want government done away with in the most gruesome manner possible—perhaps those Planned Parenthood videos are the inspiration for their actions in more ways than one.
Lately, Carly Fiorina has doubled down on her imaginary version of the Planned Parenthood videos and restated her support for the shutdown scheme. Culling from the same kind of leadership acumen that helped propel Hewlett-Packard’s value down 55 percent during her tenure, Fiorina noted that the GOP’s majorities in the House and Senate—the fact that they’ve been entrusted to govern—is why they shouldn’t. “Something very important has changed since the last government shutdown. What’s changed is the Republican Party has historic majorities in the House and we now control the majority in the Senate… And I think people worked hard because they expected a change based on that majority,” she said. “People want to know what do we stand for? What does our party stand for?”
She’s more right than she realizes. This coming shutdown is about the Republican Party’s position on Planned Parenthood, for sure. It’s also a statement about the Republican Party’s vision for how government should be used: punitively, or not at all. Their logic ties together almost the entire modern conservative platform, from gun rights to foreign policy: First, do harm.
Correction 9/21/15, 3:22 PM: A pervious version of this article misspelled Hewlett-Packard.