Ted Cruz has sparked a Republican civil war. He has done the bidding of the GOP fringe, in a self-aggrandizing crusade. And while he has enhanced his own position in the conservative fantasyland he seeks to rule, the practical effect of his quixotic campaign to defund Obamacare has been to elevate the president and jeopardize the 2014 elections for his own party.
That, at least, seems to be the consensus in Washington. We’re inclined to a somewhat different view. We say two cheers for Ted Cruz—and for Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and their fellow crusaders. They succeeded in one crucial respect: Everyone is talking about Obamacare. And the more it gets talked about, the clearer its flaws are to an already skeptical public.
Shortly after an exhausted Cruz ended his 21-hour non-filibuster filibuster, Tom Harkin took the floor. The chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Harkin is an ardent defender of the law, and he spent most of his 30-plus minutes defending the law and listing its many alleged benefits. But he also likened the Affordable Care Act to a “starter home” in need of renovations, an acknowledgment of the fundamental flaws of the president’s health care reform efforts.
Over the course of that day and those that followed, one Democrat after another had to defend the unpopular law. Majority Leader Harry Reid slipped and called the levy on medical devices “that stupid tax—I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” Alaska senator Mark Begich, a vulnerable Democrat up for reelection next year, touted the benefits of Obama-care but made sure to qualify his praise. Virginia senator Mark Warner did the same in an interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News. “There’s some good stuff in Obamacare, there’s some bad stuff in Obamacare,” he said. Warner claimed the reforms would mean more competition in rural Virginia but acknowledged: “There could be lots of bumps on this. And one of the things that kind of frustrates me is it’s the law of the land. We ought to find out what’s good in it, what’s bad in it.” He expressed concerns about “the disincentive to hire full-time workers,” the lack of tort reform in the law, the difficulty of informing consumers about their choices.
This from a defender of Obamacare.
We’re confident that if Republicans of all stripes can look beyond personality conflicts and purity tests, they will emerge from the debates this fall in a stronger position politically, and perhaps even with some agreement on policy changes that would further weaken the president’s collapsing health care regime.
The context for the current fight matters. In the late spring, Mike Lee quietly began an effort to place Obamacare at the center of the debates this fall on the country’s spending and debt crises. He enlisted the support of Rubio, Cruz, and others, and conservatives in the House launched a similar campaign. Lee hadn’t settled on a strategy—defund or delay, continuing resolution or debt ceiling. He just wanted Obamacare to be the focus of debate. The same was true for many of his allies in the House.
But their attempts to win approval from Republican leaders were unsuccessful. Although neither John Boehner nor Mitch McConnell had ruled out a push on Obamacare, they were skeptical. Republican leaders preferred an approach that sought the restoration of some sequester cuts—in social spending to win Democrats and defense spending to placate Republicans—and would have included an effort to persuade President Obama to reform existing entitlements. Obama-care was not a priority.
“I’d be leery of linking defunding to the [continuing resolution] or debt ceiling hike,” one GOP leadership aide told The Weekly Standard this summer. “No final decision has been made, but shutting the government down or threatening the full faith and credit of the United States to defund the president’s health care law would very likely be seen as unreasonable overreaching.”
Mike Lee told us in mid-July that GOP leaders had offered “nothing” in response to his entreaties and didn’t have a strategy of their own. “There is no plan,” he said.
The prospect of a unified Republican message was gone. So these conservatives launched their outside-in campaign, using grassroots activist groups and the growing conservative angst about the president’s health care law to force it atop the agenda. Cruz eagerly presented himself as the face of the effort.