House Republican leadership does not want a government shutdown over Obamacare, but the agitation of conservative activists might make one inevitable.
That’s not good news for Republicans. After the debt ceiling crisis in 2011, congressional approval ratings dipped to their lowest ever, with Republicans taking a huge hit; in one survey, 71 percent of respondents disapproved with the GOP’s handling of the debt limit. In another, 68 percent said the same (PDF).
Conservatives must know they have nothing to gain politically from taking this stance, which raises the question: why do it? One answer, as suggested by the National Review’s Robert Costa in August, is money. Tea party organizations, he writes, “aren’t worried about the establishment’s ire. In fact, they welcome it. Business has boomed since the push to defund Obamacare caught on. Conservative activists are lighting up social media, donations are pouring in, and e-mail lists are growing.” [Emphasis mine]
To illustrate the point, Heritage Action for America—the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank—has a standing website devoted to collecting donations. “Conservatives in Congress have proposed using the fight over a key budget bill, called the continuing resolution, to strip funding from this law. But Establishment Republicans and special interests in Washington are resisting this plan,” it explains. But there’s no reason to panic: “You can ensure Obamacare is defunded,” it asserts. All it takes is a small donation to Heritage. “Time is of the essence. Please donate now to ensure we have the resources to fight and win.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, this particular push had raised over $327,000, and it’s no stretch to assume that other, similar efforts have raised as much if not more cash. To wit, the Senate Conservatives Fund—a political action committee devoted to electing “true conservatives to the United States Senate”—also has a specific website that collects donations for Obamacare repeal. It asks supporters to “Join Mike Lee and Ted Cruz in the fight to stop Obamacare” with a small contribution. The same goes for the National Liberty Federation, a Tea Party group that wants to know if you have a few dollars to spare in the fight against Obamacare.
Of course, no matter how much money these groups collect, the Affordable Care Act is here to stay. And they know it. “Even they admit privately that they won’t succeed in defunding Obamacare,” notes The Wall Street Journal in a recent editorial urging “kamikaze” Republicans to give up their self-defeating crusade against the law. As President Obama said in a speech on Monday, “the Affordable Care Act has been the law for three-and-a-half years now. It passed both houses of Congress. The Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. It was an issue in last year’s election, and the candidate who called for repeal lost.” Simply put, there is no conceivable scenario that ends with Obama dismantling his signature legislative achievement.
It should be said that the most fervent opponents of the Affordable Care Act are Republican base voters. Of those who “always” vote in GOP primaries, notes the Pew Research Center, 53 percent oppose the law and want lawmakers to make it fail. When they demand action—as they have for the last four years—Republican politicians and conservative activists have a choice. They can try to channel this anger into something constructive, or they can cynically use it to boost their own prospects. For lawmakers like Ted Cruz and organizations like Heritage Action, the choice was simple: Give them what they want, even if it’s doomed to fail.
If there were no money involved, I’d call this a misguided bid for relevance. As it stands, the effort to defund Obamacare is a lucrative business. Which is why it continues to go forward, even as the odds for success dip to the quantum level. For the lawmakers and groups spearheading this movement, Tea Party voters aren’t dedicated citizens as much as they are gullible customers; ripe targets for their brand's commercialized outrage.
Ted Cruz may style himself as a leader, but the reality is that he and his fellow travelers are just the latest in a long line of shameless grifters. And like the presidential campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, this grift will continue for as long as there is money to earn, and Republican voters to con.