The Blog

Jeff Flake: A Government Shutdown Could Help Rescue Obamacare

11:58 AM, Sep 18, 2013 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

That strategy sounds reasonable, and there's an obvious precedent for it: the 2011 negotiations over the debt limit during which Republicans first passed the “cut, cap, balance” bill before ending up with the compromise of sequestration. But Republican sources on Capitol Hill say that the push to defund Obamacare never seemed to be a negotiating tactic. “If the defund push were designed to create leverage, its proponents would have indicated as much at the outset, at least privately,” says one Senate GOP aide.

Indeed, the defunders left little room for compromise. Mike Lee asked his colleagues to sign an absolute pledge not to vote for any bill to fund the government unless Obamacare was defunded. "If you’re willing to fund this thing, you can’t possibly say you’re against it," said Marco Rubio. Sarah Palin agreed. “If we get to January 1, this thing is here forever,” warned Ted Cruz. He called other congressional votes to repeal Obamacare merely “symbolic.” The only thing that made a vote to defund Obamacare less symbolic was that it was backed up by a pledge to force a government shutdown.

In other words, the entire GOP never rallied behind the defund-or-shutdown effort because it raised unrealistic expectations that would likely lead to a situation that would hurt Republicans and help Obamacare. To many Republicans, it always looked as though the defund campaign had less to do with attacking Obamacare than it did with attacking the Republicans who will inevitably need to vote to keep the government open—even if they achieved some modest victory on Obamacare.

Why would some Republicans want to claim that their colleagues had the power to stop Obamacare but didn’t? That’s potentially an effective attack for GOP presidential candidates in the Senate during the 2016 primaries. Groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth seem likely to make the primary defeat of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell a top priority in 2014, and painting him as an Obamacare supporter could go a long way toward achieving that end.

Brian Walsh, former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has argued that the defund campaign is about nothing more than raising “money for these groups' personal coffers.” The Tea Party Industrial Complex—the self-appointed "grassroots" Tea Party leaders based in Washington, D.C. like Freedomworks, the Club for Growth, and Heritage Action—needs to find a way to pay multiple staffers on their payrolls whose salaries are higher than those of United States senators.

But one need not suggest that the fundraising campaign is about personal enrichment. Most of the money, after all, goes to their more principled goal of purifying the Republican party in the 2014 and 2016 primaries of anyone deemed to be insufficiently conservative.

Jim DeMint succinctly described this approach to politics in 2010. “I’d rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don’t believe in anything,” he said. “I’d rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters.”

Thirty Marco Rubios may be better than 60 Arlen Specters, but the bad news is that 30 or even 41 rock-ribbed conservative senators simply can’t defeat Obamacare. It will most likely take 218 Republicans in the House, 50 in the Senate, and one in the White House to do the job. And at the most basic level, that explains the latest round of Republican infighting and frustration over Obamacare.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers