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.
There’s no doubt Cruz made mistakes. On tactics, he and his allies chose the wrong objective (defunding, rather than delaying key parts) and perhaps the wrong vehicle (the continuing resolution rather than the debt ceiling). And more than once, he put House Republicans in an exceedingly difficult spot. Cruz misled his followers at times by creating the impression that stopping Obamacare was a matter of willpower rather than arithmetic (Republicans alone don’t have the votes). As John McCormack has noted, Cruz alienated many would-be allies with phony purity tests—claiming that conservatives who disagreed with his tactics were part of a “surrender caucus” and even likening them to appeasers of the Nazis. Many conservatives—both inside the Congress and out—have dedicated the better part of the last four years working first to fend off and then to derail Obamacare. Because they disagree with Cruz on a tactical issue, they’re now the surrender caucus? Nonsense.
But Cruz and his allies have succeeded in one crucial respect: The debate is now focused on Obamacare and at precisely the moment when many Americans are beginning to understand just how flawed the law is. Despite the many missteps—sometimes by passive Republican leaders and sometimes by dogmatic defund enthusiasts—Republicans today are in a strong position to capitalize on what Cruz and his allies have done.
Doing so will require a more aggressive approach from Republican leaders and a more realistic one from the defund-or-nothing crowd. The focus should now be on the two provisions of Obamacare that are most difficult for the White House and congressional Democrats to defend—the Obamacare exemption for members of Congress and their staffs and the selective enforcement of the law’s mandates.
The politics of the debt ceiling have always been better for Republicans than the continuing resolution. This may be counterintuitive, since the stakes are potentially much higher in a battle over the creditworthiness of the United States than they are in a squabble over a short-term funding measure. But it’s precisely because the stakes are so much higher that the politics are better.
Barack Obama is the president. More than anyone else, he has a responsibility to avoid a default. And yet even as he and his advisers have warned repeatedly of the potentially catastrophic consequences of a failure to raise the debt ceiling, the president has steadfastly refused to negotiate at all to prevent that from happening. Previous presidents of both parties have negotiated on debt ceiling increases.
A poll out late last week confirms this. Bloomberg found that Americans by 2-to-1 “disagree with President Barack Obama’s contention that Congress should raise the U.S. debt limit without conditions.”
House Republicans are planning to pass legislation that links a variety of Republican priorities to a hike of the debt ceiling. It will likely include: the Keystone pipeline, tax reform, regulatory reform, entitlement reform, and a one-year delay of Obamacare. We’re told that such a comprehensive wish list is needed to get 218 Republican votes to pass the measure.
Much better, in our view, to focus on Obamacare—in particular the individual mandate and a provision in the law that allows those most responsible for it—members of Congress, White House staff, Supreme Court justices, and others—to avoid eating their own cooking. This summer, after the Obama administration announced its intention to suspend the implementation of the employer mandate, the House of Representatives moved quickly to provide the authority such a move would require. Thirty-five Democrats joined their Republican colleagues to suspend the employer mandate. And when Republicans argued that it would be fundamentally unfair to enforce the individual mandate and not the employer mandate, 22 Democrats in the House joined them in voting for a measure that would suspend the individual mandate, too. Late last week, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, announced that he, too, favored a suspension of the individual mandate.
In another unilateral move, the administration announced that members of Congress and other federal employees would receive taxpayer-financed subsidies for their health care, despite the fact that the hastily written law made no such provision. It was, in a sense, a carve-out for Congress, and it’s highly unpopular.
Pushing on these two issues, in the context of the debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling, allows Republicans to press Democrats on Obamacare on favorable terrain.
The president who once argued that raising the debt ceiling was a “failure of leadership” will have to defend such a failure. The president who says a default would be catastrophic will have to explain why he’s not willing to tinker with a deeply unpopular law to avoid that eventuality. The president who is eager to negotiate on nuclear issues with an Iranian regime that has targeted and killed Americans will have to reconcile that position with his refusal to engage with congressional Republicans on the debt limit. The president who won reelection railing against preferential treatment for businesses will have to explain why he’s suspending the employer mandate and enforcing the individual mandate. And the president who complains incessantly about Congress and Washington will have to explain why he’s chosen to protect them from the consequences of a law that will affect everyone else.
Who knows exactly how this all plays out. But the fight on these indefensible provisions is a good one to have, and focusing the national debate on Obamacare, as Ted Cruz and others have done, is a good way to advance it.