In 2012, then-senator and chairman of the Senate Conservatives Fund Jim DeMint endorsed Jeff Flake in the Arizona Senate race. “Jeff Flake is one of the strongest conservative leaders in Congress," declared DeMint. "[N]obody has done more to advance the cause of freedom than Jeff Flake. Nobody.”
But a little over a year since DeMint heaped effusive praise on Flake, the Arizona senator finds himself the subject of attack ads run by the Senate Conservatives Fund. "Republicans in Congress can stop Obamacare by simply refusing to fund it, but Senator Jeff Flake is nowhere to be found," declared one radio ad. "Jeff Flake won't stand up to President Obama."
The intraparty Republican squabbling over the campaign to defund Obamacare has been portrayed by many in the press as a fight between "Republican establishment" and the "conservative grassroots." But the rift between Flake and the Senate Conservatives Fund shows that's not quite right. A number of Republicans with sterling credentials as fiscal conservatives, including Flake, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, and Pennsylvania senator (and former Club for Growth president) Pat Toomey, say the campaign to defund Obamacare is misleading and counterproductive.
"Those who are pushing this proposal are telling people that it's going to defund Obamacare, and it just won't,” Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD. “If you want to know why we're in such low regard with the country, it’s that they don't believe us when we tell them something.”
Flake is right that the continuing resolution, which expires on September 30, only funds discretionary spending. And mandatory entitlement spending, which funds Obamacare, would not stop if Congress fails to pass another continuing resolution by the end of the month.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the leaders of the defund campaign, says in a Senate Conservatives Fund television ad that aired on Fox News that "Republicans in Congress can stop Obamacare if they simply refuse to fund it." But Lee readily admits that House Republicans’ passing a bill that funds everything but Obamacare--which they are likely to do this week--is only step one of the plan. Step two is that the threat of a shutdown--or an actual shutdown--turns public opinion sharply against Democrats.
"I don't think [Democrats] would be in a good negotiating posture at that point,” Lee told THE WEEKLY STANDARD during a recent phone interview. “To go to the American people and to say we're going to halt all funding for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and for other essential government programs and all these people will go without paychecks for the simple reason that we're not willing to fund Obamacare… I don't think they're going to be in a good position to do that."
Step three is victory: Senate Democrats and President Obama then agree to defund Obamacare.
“I certainly agree with the goal, but I disagree with the strategy or the tactic,” says Flake. "I think I voted 37 times in the House to defund Obamcare--I'm trying."
But Republicans like Flake think the pain and chaos of a government shutdown would very likely turn the public against Republicans and also help rescue Obamacare.
“Obamacare is falling of its own weight,” says Flake, who is pushing for a bill to delay Obamacare for a year. He isn't insisting on that bill's passage in order to keep the government open because a shutdown could bolster Democratic claims that the problem with Obamacare isn’t the law itself but rather GOP obstruction and sabotage. “It will distract attention from Obamacare and be more focused on funding government,” Flake adds. There's a reason Democrats are quietly rooting for a shutdown.
Kentucky senator Rand Paul, an early supporter of the defund effort, has suggested that it’s simply a negotiating tactic. “You start out with defunding it in order to maybe get to a delay or maybe to get to where the individual mandate goes away since the employer mandate he's already delayed,” Paul told Sean Hannity in August.
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.